Where education meets advocacy...

How This Teacher Is Dealing With Special Education Burnout

How This Teacher Is Dealing With Special Education Burnout

Despite what you think of me…I am not an expert. I know that I have this blog (rated in the top 100 of education blogs in the world), a podcast, nearly 10K Twitter and Facebook followers combined, and over a decade of working in a special education classroom under my belt. This does not automatically make me anything except someone who decided to start reaching out to like-minded individuals because going it alone was too overwhelming. So here I find myself again…wondering…hoping…praying that what I am doing is making a difference not only in my students’ and their families’ lives but in yours as well.

I am not immune to burnout.

If you think you are never going to burnout as a teacher…I hate to burst your bubble. It will happen eventually. It is just what you do when you get there. I am not saying that I am ready to leave the profession but the thought has crossed my mind (and lips to my colleagues). How did I get here? How did I get to the point where I am thinking about leaving the job that I wanted to make such an impact on. Since I am not paying you by the hour and you are not my therapist, I will spare you the psychology and cut right to the chase. Too many demands paired with not enough time to do them.

The paperwork is suffocating.

The teachers that I know that are thriving in their job (special or general education) have some sort of autonomy. This means that they are able to self-direct some part of their teaching practice. This could be how they write their IEPs, what kind of professional development they receive, or how money is spent to support their programs. Where teachers become hopeless is when they are required to do things that they know (and many times their supervisors know) don’t mean much in the long-term but are required of them by some local, state or federal guidelines or regulations. Paperwork is literally piling up in their email in-boxes or on their desk which means people like myself have to make a hard choice about what they focus on. How many teachers bring work home with them? All of them. Which brings me to another point about how we run our public schools…districts don’t give teachers enough time to plan or collaborate.

The education system is severely flawed.

As we have highlighted many times on this blog, planning and collaboration are essential to any inclusive school. This idea is not in dispute. I would argue that the idea that students with disabilities being educated along side their non-disabled peers benefits everyone is also not in dispute. The research proves this over and over again. What is in dispute is how we get planning for inclusion done. Another thing that causes problems is when educators talk about what inclusion should look like for a school or district. Our system is not setup for inclusive practices. Our IEPs are deficit based at their core instead focusing on strengths. Our classrooms are setup to separate students based on ability level or disability category. Our staffing is based on archaic funding systems. Our national education policy is focused on accountability without giving teachers the proper tools and/or training on how to become better at their craft. I want to be an effective teacher and sometimes I feel like I can’t be the kind of teacher I want to be because circumstances that are out of my control. Our system is broken. With all of this weighing on our shoulders it is hard not to feel lost at sea as a pubic school employee.

I am turning to other passions to feel energized.

A recent series on NPR talked about the things that teachers do on their off-time to get energized or help inform their practice. As many of you know, I love music. I am constantly listening to and in search of good music. I also play music when I get the chance. I learned the piano when I was five years old and then went on to learn the guitar and bass in high school. I have been in bands off and on for the last twenty years. Music helps me feel alive and it is like breathing air or drinking water. Another passion of mine is writing. This blog is an example of how I have turned my love of words into something creative. If I am not doing something creative, I feel very restless and depressed.

Blogging is a type of therapy.

I briefly mentioned therapy in the above paragraphs. I have not been to a therapist in quite a while and when I started this blog it was not my intention to use it therapeutically. Although, now that I am nearly three years into this project, I am finding that blogging can be a type of therapy…group therapy in a way. It is as personal as you want it to be but impersonal enough that I don’t feel weird talking about my struggles as an educator. There is something freeing about putting yourself out there to strangers. I have frequented enough education blogs to know that I am not the only one who feels this way.

I know that I am not alone.

There are many education blogs out there. This is what makes you being here reading what I have to say so special to me. Despite your (and my) feelings of being alone, treading water in an ocean of bureaucracy, we are not. I encourage you to reach out to people in your school building or online for support. Being a teacher is a tough gig…all of which has very little to do with the kids. My students and their families are the best part of the job.

I live in the shades of gray.

Because of the nature of being a special education teacher, I often feel I live in the shades of gray. Let me briefly explain. I know that because of my training that self-contained classrooms are not necessarily the best for students with disabilities. I know that some of the students at our school would thrive in inclusive environments but for whatever reason, our district is not at a point where they are able to make that happen. I also know that for some of my students that a more restrictive environment is appropriate because there are no other options. Parents have to make hard decisions based on what they think is best for their children. In most cases, I give the parent the benefit of the doubt. They are their child’s first teacher. They are the expert on their child. As an educator, I am doing a disservice if I don’t take that into account. On the other hand, as an educator I have the unique opportunity of being objective in certain aspects. It is a constant judgement call on how to approach parents about their children and what we think is “best”.

I choose hope instead of despair.

Invariably, I choose hope instead of despair. I don’t have any other option. If I give in to the negativity, there is no doubt that I would be running for the hills.

Bottom Line: I love my students and I want the best for them. I want them to get a great education. I want to be the one who helps give it to them. I want to facilitate an inclusive environment for them. I want to be a change agent in my school and district so that people with disabilities are not stigmatized and included in an authentic way everywhere they are. This is why I continue to be a teacher and why most likely I will continue to be one.

I hope that my ramblings helps to strengthen your resolve. If you have something to add please tell us about it in the comments sections below.

Photo Credit: Mike Hoff/Flickr

How Not to Work with Kids with Special Needs

Nico in a swimming pool, holding onto a tube, swimming and laughing.

By David Perry A version of this post was originally published at How Did We Get Into This Mess?  This is my son swimming at a party this summer. He's never happier than when he's in the pool, using his body, feeling the water, playing and filled … [Continue reading]

5 Ways To Build Superb Relationships With Paraprofessionals

5 Ways To Build Superb Relationships With Paraprofessionals

This post was originally published at Special Education Guide. Don’t be jealous: I have the very best paraprofessionals in the world. They know exactly what to do even when I am not there. They are like an extension of my brain and I could not do my … [Continue reading]

How To Build Friendships In An Inclusive Environment

Building Trust

One of the highlights of my job is working with teens.  I am proud that I have had the opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for nearly twenty years. An article from Psych Central entitled, “How Teens Choose Their … [Continue reading]

Peer Advice for College Freshmen with Disabilities

Peer Advise

Well over a month into the new academic year and college freshmen who experience disability know a reality. College remains more challenging then high school. From learning the differences between an IEP and 504 plan to adapting to a new environment, … [Continue reading]

Toddler Hands-On Learning: Active Play versus Screen Time


Parents looking at expensive tablet computers and gaming systems for their preschool children should reconsider their choices. That money could buy an abundance of puzzles, shape-sorting toys, building blocks, and art supplies. Could children be … [Continue reading]

The Facts About Autism and Vaccines in One Infographic

The Facts About Autism and Vaccines in One Infographic

This infographic originally appeared at Healthcare-Management-Degree.net. The Science Facts about Autism and Vaccines What started the rumors? 1998: Lancet published a paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield it was a dramatic study that found a … [Continue reading]

Assistive Technology Increasing Inclusion in Classrooms and Beyond

Desktop Desk Increases Computer Access

Creating inclusive environments involves problem solving, something Sonora High School special education teacher Rob Mayben knows quite well. Mayben invented the Desktop Desk, an assistive technology (AT) device that enables better access for … [Continue reading]

Why I Am Still A Self-Contained Teacher

Why I Am Still A Self-Contained Teacher

For the last ten years of my career, I go to work every day with a mild case of cognitive dissonance. This is because while I am a promoter of inclusive education (even for those students with the most significant disabilities) I continue to be a … [Continue reading]

How to Create the Perfect Environment for Online Learning At Home


Because of books, audio-visual materials, computers, and of the internet, it is now possible to study at home through online learning. In fact there are now schools and colleges which have varieties of distant learning programs. The only concern of … [Continue reading]