This post is prompted by Rob, who left a comment where he said he was going to get his Master’s in order to teach special education. Two of my paras are currently working towards the business, albeit at a lower level and slower pace. Princess is actually just trying to get a B.S. knocked out, so she can get her foot in the door. I think she’s taking something along the lines of nursing management or something. She’s still in the core part of it, with math, history, English, psychology and such. Coach is working on the community college level, getting an associates in early childhood before moving on to a more focused program. Patience has an associate’s in something, and I’ve encouraged her to make a move to go back and finish a B.S. before she has to pay for her own daughter’s college. These three have seen enough to see the reality of the job; the good, the bad and the ugly. The fact that Coach and Princess are still keen to go on is a testament to their dedication to the cause. Not that they haven’t had cause for doubt at various times. Sometimes the ugliness gets me scratching my own head. “What was I thinking?”
Special education is actually a fairly broad field. The good news is that if you get burned out of one area, you can move over, or down or between areas. For instance, I got my feet initially wet with learning disabilities and then moved on to EBD, before landing in with the severe and profound. Settings can also vary a LOT. Within EBD alone, I served in a self-contained setting in a regular school, and then served in a psychoed and then for a few years in a psychiatric hospital. Most of these were on the high school level, although I did teacher younger kids in the hospital as young as 5. Don’t ask me how a 5 year-old gets into a psych hospital. You don’t want to know. But one thing is certain: opportunities abound. Job security for a fully certified special education teacher is pretty much a done deal. But it’s important to be mindful of this: there’s a good reason for that job security.
According to the article linked in my last post, the attrition rate for special education teachers is hideous, and more than twice the rate of anyone else in education. While math and science teachers can be lured out by better opportunities elsewhere, special educators are more often driven out by the workload, the high liability and just the general stress of dealing with a population that is there precisely because they stress regular education beyond its tolerance. Fully 50% of special educators that begin teaching this fall will leave within 5 years. 50% of those remaining after the first 5 years will leave before they have done 10 years. So you basically have what looks like a 75% turnover every 10 years. But even this does not reflect future need as more kids are being diagnosed with developmental disabilities, including the pervasive ones like autism.
One reason I’ve survived the stresses and pressures is because I am always planning for a change. That doesn’t mean I necessarily carry it through, but I’m always looking. I expect change, and am up for dealing with it. Being able to cope with change is such a key part of this business. One reason Mr. Pyle is constantly depressed and frustrated is because he deals with change very poorly. He wants things to stay the same all the time. But it never does. Ever. Things change and change is hard.
Georgia’s services are not what I would call outstanding, but they hold their own against most other states. Remember the U.S. congress has never ever met their obligation of covering 40% of the funding for special education. They have never even funded it at 20%. NCLB is going the same way. Get used to it.
I might not have gotten this far into special education if I hadn’t become a parent of a person with special needs. That extra fire in my gut seems to be a key to my resilience and determination. Is pure dedication good enough? I don’t know. To put this in perspective, it’s important to note that Princess has three younger adoptive brothers with special needs. Coach has dyslexia and went through school with an IEP. You see a bit of a thread running through here? I’d like to think I could still do what I do as well as I do it without having to be so intimately involved with exceptionalities. But that’s nonsense. It’s just part of who I am. I think all teachers who make it past 10 years are there because they are called to it. This seems especially true for special education, where many start out trying to answer the call, but few are actually fully ordained into it.
Many of my colleagues in both regular and special education have come up to me and told me they couldn’t do what I do. I used to think that absurd since so much of what I do isn’t especially rigorous. At least not intellectually compared to the folks doing regular ed stuff on the high school level. But I have come ‘round to seeing that there is something more to it and not everyone can do it and not everyone should do it. And I’m not sure I’ll always be doing it.
I admire those folks looking to get into this business of special education. It is not getting any easier and I don’t see the trend reversing any time soon. One has to be a bit of an oddball to get into education nowadays, and this is doubly so for those coming into special education. If you’re a skilled oddball, we really need you in special education! If you’re not very skilled, go learn and acquire the skills you need. Learn to be observant, take and keep data, train and supervise your paras, communicate with parents, use research-based methods and do your own research. Oh, and try to keep ahead of the paperwork. Love the paperwork. Embrace the paperwork. Become one with the paperwork. How hard can it be?