Special Education

17 Things Only Special Education Teachers Will Understand

17 Things Only Special Education Teachers Will Understand
Happy tears are a thing. Image from Unsplash
Tim Villegas profile
Tim Villegas September 20, 2019

Gift cards beat inspirational coffee mugs every single time.

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Sometimes, when I tell people I work in special education, they say things like, “you must have the patience of a saint,” or “it takes a certain kind of person to work with those kids.” These statements are usually well-intentioned but often misinformed.

I became a special education teacher first and foremost because I care about students’ success. I was trained with specific skills and intervention techniques and honed them to work with students with disabilities. I spend my free time researching educational best practices and reading anything I can find to enrich my proverbial “tool kit.” To me, this is what good teachers do. They never stop learning.

The assumption surrounding my profession seems to be that someone can roll out of bed one morning and say to themselves, “You know what? I’m gonna educate kids with disabilities!” Some people think that all they need to be a successful special education teacher is a good heart and a warm smile. These types of people tend to leave the classroom after a few months (or even days).

There’s also the trope of meek or mild caregiver, which couldn’t be further from the mindset needed to thrive in this profession. Special education teachers must speak up, support one another, and continually re-evaluate their goals, especially if they want a lasting career.

Luckily, many of us who work in special education accept the fact that our specialization is one of the most misunderstood roles in education. We know who we are and what we do, and that we share a distinct set of common experiences that most people outside the field can’t fully grasp. But we’ll always try to clue you in. Here are just some of the things that all special education teachers understand.

1. We’re real teachers

We went to real colleges and universities and came out with real degrees. Don’t let anyone tell you that we’re glorified babysitters.

2. Yes, you can eat lunch in under three minutes

That is… if we even get lunch at all. Special education teachers don’t typically get a planning period, which makes grazing on snacks while taking care of business our specialty.

3. Thick skin comes with the job

At some point in their career, every special educator is bound to have students who exhibit challenging behavior. What’s crucial to know is that we’re trained not to take any adverse action personally. We know that students often manifest behavioral issues because they don’t have the skills to communicate, which makes it critical that we teach them to voice their wants and needs appropriately.

4. The unavoidable “ick” factor

It’s common practice for special education teachers to keep a spare set of clothes in the chance we need to change. We never know what kind of fluid or material we might find flying around. Don’t get us started on the importance of comfortable shoes.

5. Students’ interests are crucial to learning

Everyone has dreams and goals, even if they’re not evident at first glance. We understand that integrating students’ talents and passions into a lesson or learning environment can help them stay focused and engaged—and make our teaching better.

6. The work is really, really difficult

50 percent of special education teachers leave the field in their first five years of teaching. 75 percent leave after 7 to ten years. In most cases, this is due to a lack of support, long hours, and low pay. The burnout is real.

7. Happy tears are a thing

Our favorite aspect of teaching is seeing the growth students make after a full year of school. We get emotional when thinking that maybe, we’re part of the work that went into nudging our students to become confident and successful young people.

8. We’ll trade stickers for professional development

If we work in a district or school that offers teacher training, we jump on it. We often get the short end of the stick when it comes to resources to help grow our skills.

9. The squeaky wheel gets the grease

We know that we need to be persistent to get the support we need for our classrooms. We’re armed with the knowledge to support our students and their right to appropriate services and learning accommodations.

10. Attitude is everything

We know how our day will go when we start it in by complaining or wallowing in a bad mood, and we see the effect it has on our students. We try our hardest to keep a positive (but not unrealistic) outlook and seize the day, and we know we’re better off for it.

11. Being flexible has advantages, too

Special education teachers make a career out of expecting the unexpected. There is no telling when a student will have an emergency health issue or engage in challenging behavior, or a visitor from the district office might stop by. We roll with whatever surprises are around the bend, and it’s what makes the job exciting. Good or bad, we have to stay flexible. If we don’t, we’ll break.

12. Students learn better together

Inclusive education is not just about the time students with disabilities spend in general education classrooms. It’s about creating an environment where differences are acknowledged and respected, and teachers can plan for the success of all learners.

13. There is no such thing as “being caught up”

The paperwork is endless for special education teachers. Some of us tend towards chaos and disorganization, even when we try our hardest to keep our desks and inboxes clean.

14. Gift cards rule all

Because spending hundreds of dollars on our classrooms is part of the gig.

15. Where to find free food

Granted, this truth is not entirely unique to special education teachers. There is almost always free food available in a school’s teachers’ lounge, especially during the holidays—and we don’t judge colleagues for indulging. Teaching is a stressful gig, and anyway, a gym membership can happen whenever.

16. We can’t survive without teacher friends

It is easy for us to isolate ourselves, especially when feeling outnumbered by general education teachers—or worse, misunderstood. We know that we need to put energy into including ourselves in school life and that general education teachers should help foster these relationships too.

17. Students with disabilities are so much more than their diagnoses

Our students are children first who have hopes, dreams, wants, and needs. We don’t focus on their disabilities but use them to understand how we can best support our students’ development in and outside of the classroom. And we know that no matter their limitations, our students are capable of thinking, learning, and understanding.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle. He has been managing editor of the Noodle.com website for over four years.

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