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How Teaching Special Education Changed My Life & My Career

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Though teaching special education can be a challenging and arduous profession, it offers numerous benefits and rewards, both professional and personal, for those willing to pursue such a career.

Teaching Special Education

Providing instruction to students with special needs is a completely different experience from working with the general population. The difficulty of this profession is demonstrated by the startlingly high rate of burnout: 12.3 percent of special education teachers leave the profession, a rate that is nearly double that of other teachers, and 49 out of 50 states report a shortage of available teachers.

Though being a special education teacher is not for everyone, it can absolutely be a rewarding and informative experience. Working as a special education teacher has taught me a lot about myself, both as a teacher and as a person. The lessons I've learned have served and will continue to help me in the classroom and beyond.

Benefits of a Steep Learning Curve

When it comes to getting your feet wet and finding out if you have what it takes to be a teacher, there might not be a better way than teaching special education. Working in this field will require just about every teaching strategy you know: patience, cooperation, teamwork, communication, organization, and patience (which is listed twice because of how much you'll be needing). I certainly won't sugarcoat things: teaching special education is every bit as demanding and stressful as it sounds. That being said, it's not all bad, and there are plenty of upsides and rewards for pursuing this career choice.

teaching moment

For starters, I noticed rapid development of numerous important skills such as classroom management and organization. Students with special needs benefit from a highly structured environment, so special education teachers need to be sure that every minute of the day is accounted for and contains some form of activity. My early days were full of 'down time,' and I would notice my students becoming restless and distracted after only a few moments.

My interpersonal communication skills were also bolstered almost instantaneously, and not just from the time spent with my students. Special education is far from a solo enterprise, and you can expect to interact with a wide variety of other adults, including parents, counselors, psychologists, school administrators, and other teachers. The feedback you can provide and your ability to communicate with these individuals are crucial to both you and your students, so you'll need to work on these skills in order to ensure smooth interactions with your peers.

IEP

I'm sure that these same skills would have improved if I had been in a general education classroom, but I doubt they would have developed at such a rapid pace. Starting out in special education was a challenging assignment, but I am convinced that I am a better teacher because of my experience.

The Importance Of Personal Relationships

One of the most important lessons I learned during my special education days was the significance of building connections with students. Prior to working in the special education sector, I had often heard of the importance of emphasizing a student's personal interests, but my first-hand experience really opened my eyes as to how instrumental this approach can be for a student's personal and academic growth.

One student, whom we will refer to as Ben, routinely struggled to stay on task and frequently disrupted our lessons. The one exception was during P.E. for one simple reason: Ben loved soccer. Once he got on the field, he was practically a different student; he was focused, determined, outgoing, and confident. His genuine love of the game took away the stress of school and allowed him to fully enter his comfort zone.

Armed with this new knowledge, I started finding ways to work Ben's love of soccer into other classroom activities. During reading time, I found books and newspaper articles about the sport. In math class, we tried to create custom word problems involving sports terms. I even used the game as an incentive for good behavior ('if you finish this task, you get five extra minutes of soccer later').

The effect on Ben's engagement was immediately obvious. He was much more involved and focused in the classroom, and we experienced far fewer incidents of misbehavior. His academic performance improved and overall he seemed like a much happier and productive person.

I soon learned that every student is just like Ben. Working in special education proved to me that everyone has something that piques their interest, whether it's sports or painting or music, and I've become a better teacher because of it. If you can discover what that special something is, you gain an incredibly helpful tool for your teaching methods.

musical student

The Joy of Teaching

As a special education teacher, the relationships you forge with your students may not be exactly how you imagine them. Because of their behavioral and emotional issues, special needs students develop attachments and show affection in unique ways. Instead of holding in-depth conversations with students, you can expect plenty of nonverbal communication like gestures or artwork.

If anything, I actually appreciate these forms of communication more. The bond between a special education teacher and student isn't weaker, it's just different. One student had trouble with penmanship to the extent that he could hardly write his own name, but he was an enthusiastic artist and our classroom was littered with pictures of him and his classmates. These unique displays of affection are intensely rewarding and serve as constant reinforcement whenever I feel discouraged or frustrated.

Despite all the stress, teaching students with special needs consistently reminds me of why I became a teacher. When I see a student spend hours trying to learn something and then finally succeeding, I forget all about the challenges of the profession. I'm not sure how things would have turned out if I had stuck with general education, but I never doubt that I made the right choice when I decided to turn to special education.

happy student

By Bill Sands
November 2017
teachers special education

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