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The Five Secrets To Being A Special Education Teacher And Still Love Your Job


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Do you want to know the secrets to working in Special Education and still love your job? Read on…

If you are reading this…it probably means that there is still hope for you. Perhaps, you are young and not yet jaded by the persistent thumb of the public education system pressed firmly on your back. Perhaps, you are an optimist, who tries to see the silver lining in everything. Or perhaps, you have already figured out the secrets to working in a job that has little pay, little respect and little support. Here my five secrets to being a special education teacher and still absolutely love it.

1. Understand that it is not about YOU.

We did not enter into a career in education to become millionaires… In fact, the only people that are really making money in this industry are the test makers (I don’t know that for sure…just venting a little). So…if you did not do it for the money…why are you a special education teacher? I know it was not JUST because teachers have the summer off! How many of us work Extended School Year (ESY), plan and dream about the following school year during the summer?

We do what we do because we love to work with kids. We do what we do because we enjoy people (or at least I hope we do). When we realize that it is not really about US… and what we can do for other people, our kiddos, our paraprofessionals, our co-teachers, and fellow staff… we can let go of trying to make our situation perfect for us. Being a teacher is a collaborative profession…which brings me to the next secret.

2. Realize you are not alone.

There are approximately 3.9 million teachers (including public and private) in the United States. Whether they are special education teachers or not…each one of them has a stake in education as a whole and has an interest in making it better. It can be easy to feel isolated especially if you are special education teacher in a small district. Perhaps you feel alienated by the school staff. You are a vital part of your school community even if you don’t think you are. Know that there are thousands of teachers…just like you…who are struggling do to the same thing.

3. Develop your Personal Learning Network (PLN).

Are you on Facebook? No? Go get an account… I can wait…

Are you on Twitter? No? Really? Okay…I can spare a minute…

Are you on Linkedin? Okay…now this may take some time.

These three social media outlets are VITAL to establishing your learning community. I understand that this requires you to be somewhat tech savvy…but guess what folks. Technology is a huge part of the shift in education. If we do not get on board with technology we are going to be left out in the dust. For more information on how to manage your digital life you can check out my previous post —>> here. The big point here is to connect with people who are interested in the same things and then read, watch and do.

4. Have high expectations for yourself and your students.

Nothing irks me more than hearing a teacher say, “they are never going to get anything out of that!” or “so-and-so should have never been placed in (insert LRE placement here)…they should have been in (insert more restrictive placement) all along!”

Have some respect for your students that they can learn and will learn when given the correct supports. It is too easy to place the blame on someone else for why a student is in your classroom. Believe that you CAN teach any student! You are a special education teacher for a reason…you want to help realize a student’s potential. If you don’t know how to do it…there are ways to figure it out. Don’t give up on your student or yourself. You will become a better person and a better teacher for it. Where there is a will there is a way.

5. Make friends with General Education Teachers and then collaborate with them.

Okay…this is really the silver bullet. If you are Special Education Teacher and you sit alone in your classroom during your lunch and planning period….you are missing out on the richness of developing relationships within the school community. Once I opened up myself to know and befriend other teachers who did not teach my kiddos…I saw a whole other world. Sometimes it is easy to segregate ourselves from our school staff and then when we don’t feel included or are not invited to things we point the finger at them.

Something that has transformed my teaching is to collaborate with general education teachers on lessons that my class and their class can do together. This way…it is not just about integrating special needs students and typical students…it is about designing lessons so that EVERYONE can participate and get something meaningful out of it. No longer can we use the excuse… “well…they won’t get anything out if this.” They WILL because we can set it up for our kids to be successful.

If we apply these secrets to our education practice…I promise you will love your job. In fact…you may even want to start a blog to write about it. It happened to me.

Thanks for your time and attention.

Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

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Tim Villegas

Founder and Curator-At-Large at Think Inclusive
Tim Villegas has worked in the field of special education and with people with disabilities for over ten years. Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website, thinkinclusive.us. He believes that we can create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates (including self-advocates) to promote ideas, innovation and inspiration to change our world to be more accepting and value each and every human being. Tim lives with his fetching wife and three adorable children in Marietta, GA.

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  • http://www.clickfire.com/ Emory Rowland

    Tim, I think you said it well here:

    “We do what we do because we love to work with kids. We do what we do because we enjoy people…”

    • Tim Villegas

      Thanks for checking out the blog Emory. Happy to make your acquaintance. :)

      • http://www.clickfire.com/ Emory Rowland

        Likewise Tim, thanks!

  • Becky

    Tim, this blog is great for anyone who desires to serve and transform peoples lives. Love it. It’s not about you…thanks for writing this!

    • Tim Villegas

      Becky – I think that the statement “it is not about you” can be applied to many different areas of life. It is when we serve others that we really get to know who we really are and supposed to be. Thanks for the kids words and checking in.

  • http://Facebook Jeannene O’Connell

    I couldn’t agree more with the five reasons in your statement above. I have managed all of the items you wrote about and I’ve been a special education teacher, case manager and now an advocate because I am completely in love with what I do in education. I have worked with some of the most incredible general education teachers and we can complete each other’s sentences when we team teach! Everything you wrote is completely accurate and should be read by all first and second year teachers to ensure collaboration. We should all have one common goal: educate children, all children.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Sincerely,
    A happy special education teacher of 12 years…and counting
    Jeannene O’Connell, M.Ed

    • Tim Villegas

      Thanks for your words Jeannene! This will be my tenth year in special education… I can’t believe it has been this long. It is always better when you work as a team of educators. It is too exhausting to do it on your own.

  • http://Linked-In Velma

    Tim thanks for the encouragement. I’m not new to the profession, but was around long enough to start to feel the burn of burn-out (Do more with less). Anyway, I’ve had a break and am ready to rejoin the troops. Well said! Thanks again.

    • Tim Villegas

      Thanks for your comments Velma! I have seen burn out in good teachers…we need to support each other if we are going to make it. Glad you have had a chance to refresh and get back in the game. :)

  • http://www.inclusivesociety,org Sadia

    Hi Tim,

    All great ideas for special ed teachers for sure. But the question is how to take them global, specifically where there are layers of challenges – teachers who are not tech-savy, where the spec ed system is seriously deficient and out-moded, for whom this is just a ‘job’, who are not part of the enlightened disability rights advocacy and movement, far flung rural communities where spec ed does exist.

    Spec ed in the developing world is in its infancy stages in terms of current best practices in North America. How we bridge the gap is the challenge :)

    • Tim Villegas

      Sadia,

      You are absolutely right… this post was for an American audience. I don’t know very much about how people with disabilities are treated beyond Canada, Australia, and the UK. I know there are huge steps to be taken and I want to be more informed. It looks like your website is a great place to start. Thanks for weighing in and I look forward to finding a way to work together on inclusion as a global issue.

  • Paulette Adam

    All good comments. I would add, develop a good relationship with parents. We are part of a team.

    • Tim Villegas

      Great point Paulette…

      Part of being an advocate for your students also means being an advocate for the family. Too many times teachers have an adversarial role with parents. I wrote about this in my post: 10 Promises Every Special Educator Should Make To Their Students’ Parents http://www.thinkinclusive.us/10-promises-special-educator-parents/

      Thanks for your input! :)

  • http://greenmellen.com Ali

    My hat is off to all teachers, especially special education teachers. I can imagine that connections with other teachers, whether gen Ed or special education, during the day is vital to your growth, mental health, and support needs. Enjoy your time off this summer. You deserve it!

  • Lisa

    Wonderful post! All excellent points…especially numbers 2 and 5, both of which are sometimes the most difficult to manage with the types of classes and student populations that we have. This past school year was probably the most challenging of all my 20 years, and also the one where I felt the least effective. I’ve felt the stirrings of burn-out for the first time, and I’m desperately hoping the summer break will help. I also agree with the comment about involving parents. My students’ parents have often been my greatest source of encouragement and motivation. Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  • phil

    Awesome insights. I would include along with collaborating with general education teacher is get involved with school activities. Put yourself out there so the school community gets to know you. I recently participated in a student vs. teacher basketball game. I thought ohhh dear most these students don’t really know who i am and then I thought well who’s fault is that? Sometimes we make ourselves scares in school activities because out students don’t really go to them. That’s not going to change if we as educators don’t take the first step.

  • tam

    I opened your article thinking you would give some quality advice to new sped teachers to help them choose the right positions– but know just guilt trips and rainbows. I think there is SOME merit to what you say but such poor advice to new sped teachers. This is a job that will chew you up and spit you out after it stomps on your heart. The poor conditions for students and teachers can be such a tragedy for everyone but college special ed programs who are more than willing to bank on the constant stream of new hopefuls who think they won’t be a statistic. 50% of new sped teachers out in 5 years 75% out in 7-10 years. I have helped friends move out of their classes six weeks into school after untold abuse!! I have assisted others in finding psychiatric care for Post Tramatic Stress Disorder at least 4 times.

    And here you are— MORE put and shut up and guilt if you just LOVE kids more all the problems would go away. YOu can love kids til you are mentally ill and I have seen it and it doesn’t change situations for teachers. Abuse of us is abuse of students and their parents. Can’t you at least offer some interview questions for new teachers in self-contained???

    Such as

    What is the class size and student needs of this class?
    What is the curriculum? Is there one?
    How do general education teachers feel about self-contained on your campus?
    What will my evaluations be comprised of? Will the district eval system be modified to fit the goals of my students and what we are actually working on?
    What are my responsibilities and your expectations of me aside from teaching? Special clubs ect.
    How do you feel about this class as an administrator? What is YOUR philosophy about special ed?
    Will I have a prep time/planning time/ Lunch like the other teachers?
    Will we be given time to collaborate as a team?
    Who supervises assistants/paras and what is the protocol in the event of insubordination?
    this would be a small start in the right direction.
    Tam

    • Tim Villegas

      Tam,

      You sound angry. It sounds like you have been through some very hard experiences. So…not taking anything away from that…you assume that people are able to choose their position…in my experience new teachers are just looking for a job. And…the post has more to do with having the right attitude than “guilt trips and rainbows”. In this job…attitude is everything. In any event…thanks for giving me something to think about and being the impetus for my new post: http://www.thinkinclusive.us/things-i-wish-i-knew-my-first-year-of-teaching-special-education/ I hope this was more what you were looking for. Thanks for your candor.

  • Swami Shidramayya Hiremath

    Yes I do believe with you but I can add another secret on top that is a special educator can change all the wrong views,thoughts,perceptions of a poor cultured society which is till date not ready to accept a special need person.

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  • Janet Corrette

    I made it 32 years, with a few years of elem. PE with multihandicapped kids. I would only add…learn to laugh at yourself, and with your students. Give lots of high fives, smiles, hugs and encouragement. Be there when they cry, and then let them know someone believes in them. Good luck to all!! :)