Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

Co-teaching has become a default model for delivering special education. It comes in many forms, but the unifying characteristic is having the special education teacher in the general education classroom to ensure the facilitation of special education programming. It makes sense in many situations. It doesn’t in others. How schools implement it varies tremendously. So does how well it works.

How did we get to co-teaching? An inclusive approach to special education is no longer a theoretical notion. It’s how schools deliver special education to most students with IEPs. By law, these students must have access to the general education curriculum alongside their peers who don’t have disabilities. Increasingly, schools are pushing to make inclusion an afterthought, with classrooms being designed from the start to accommodate a range of needs.

To make this happen, general education teachers need help. Here is where special education teachers enter the fold. For many years, special education teachers were supporting cast members, taking needy students aside to work with them in resource rooms or other settings. Special education teachers would collaborate with general education teachers to make adjustments to assignments and tests that would improve access for special education students. Today, special education teachers continue in this collaborative role, but the trend is for them to allocate most of their time in general education classroom with the general education teacher, ideally incorporating some form of co-teaching.

Many smart people have figured out ways to make co-teaching work. Like almost anything else in education, the most effective mode might depend on the array of needs in a class. Possibilities range from having the teachers share the responsibility of working with all students to having the special education teacher work with students needing extra support in a small group. The half dozen or so variants of co-teaching together form a playbook for how to create and maintain an inclusive learning environment. With the playbook already written, one would think schools could run effective programming.

Perhaps the greatest hindrances to making co-teaching work are the rushed or absent preparation teachers too often have for the endeavor along with the lack of common planning time needed. In some schools, teachers have a professional development or two and are left to figure out how to do this on their own. Special education teachers might be told to push in to a general education class with little direction regarding what this pushing in should entail. Meanwhile, co-teachers frequently lack common preparation periods. Sometimes arranging for this isn’t possible. Communication becomes hampered. Functional co-teaching isn’t likely to materialize.

Compounding such problems, more students tend to need support than there are special education teachers available to provide it. If these students are dispersed among several concurrent classes, the special education teachers likely won’t get to work with them for but a few intervals during the day. Teachers need to be flexible, but they can’t be in more than one place at a time. If the students with disabilities are grouped, schools can be accused of tracking them, even if this would facilitate efficient co-teaching. Scheduling headaches trip up good intentions.

A typical scenario follows. The special education teacher is assigned, doesn’t know what to do, and ends up being an expensive assistant. He or she will circulate in the classroom and help wherever possible. This can be of benefit to students, but it might not be the best use of this professional’s skills. It tends to undermine the special education teacher’s standing in the eyes of students as students see him or her as a helper and not as the authority in the room.

Continuing, the special education teacher and general education teacher might not get along famously. They might differ in their views regarding management and in how to best support the needy learners in the classroom. In some highly toxic relationships, the general education might feel the special education teacher is almost an intruder rather than a teammate, while the special education teacher might feel more of an allegiance to the students than to his or her colleague.

Beyond such a scenario, other programmatic pitfalls lurk. These depend on how adamant a school is about having students with IEPs in the general education classroom for the maximum amount of time. One of the longstanding difficulties with inclusion is making certain students who need more concentrated support aren’t being lost. Some students might need pull out service. Administrators might be reticent to arrange for this because they feel pressure per IDEA indicators to keep up the percentage of time special education students are in general education.

When a school is inflexible about this, students can get shortchanged and can be left floundering with minimal support in classes that aren’t appropriate for their needs. As special education teachers are assigned as team teachers, they might not be available to those floundering students.

Co-teaching doesn’t have to be a jumbled affair. Schools must consider it a tool that might be of benefit when including students, rather than a mandate that must be followed. It also need not be an organizational and collegial mess. Much of the time, it is productive and beneficial. It does require preparation. It does demand organizational forethought. Co-teaching can be a twist in the conceptual paradigm many teachers have about their selected vocation. The autonomy that some might have sought simply might not be there. It can be in the best interest of students for whom inclusion is appropriate, though. The point of all this is the benefit of students. If co-teaching is working, a school should continue using it. If it isn’t, everyone needs to take a close look at why.

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

One is the Costliest Number

One of the most expensive and invasive services a school can offer to a student with an IEP is a one-to-one assistant or personal care assistant. What could put more of a strain on a school’s resources than assigning one member of the staff to one student? Occasionally, a student will exhibit needs intense enough to justify such a costly service. Determining necessity and feasibility makes for a complicated and often controversial set of decisions.

Parents routinely request this level of support. Sometimes they demand rather than request. The parent input section of evaluations and IEPs often includes statements about how students need one-to-one help to be successful. Well, almost every student would benefit from having a specifically assigned adult for support throughout the school day. Most students don’t need this, though. Schools don’t have an obligation to provide the best possible education, just one that is appropriate. Nonetheless, convincing a parent his or her child might not absolutely need one-to-one support can be difficult.

Of course, some students do need it. In particular, students with emotional disturbances, behavior disorders, or other conditions that affect behavior are likely candidates. When behaviors interfere with learning and safety to a degree that progress isn’t possible, teams might have to consider one-to-one support as an option. Such an intense level of service could be what helps a student remain focused and engaged in the general education environment. It can be the service that ensures a free appropriate public education.

Another way of looking at it is the school community at large might need the support. This might resonate with any school employee who has experienced what can happen on a day the one-to-one for a student with behavior issues is absent. Depending on the student, the school day can become a wash, with several staff members consumed in an effort to contain a volatile student. Instructional time and even safety for other students can be compromised. Schools might struggle similarly with students prone to such behavior until teams agree a one-to-one is needed. They might struggle while waiting for a one-to-one to be assigned, too. The point of the service is to support the student, but the result might be a quieter, more functional school day for everyone else.

The rational mind might wonder what the hell students who are so disruptive are doing in schools. Why should schools have to commit such resources to students who can’t be assisted otherwise, students who can’t function in any sort of typical school environment without such a pricey service? The simple answer is the law demands they are taught with their peers to the greatest extent possible. If a one-to-one is necessary for this, the school needs to provide it. The more esoteric answer is these students are entitled to an education despite the conditions that cause their behaviors. Excluding them because of behaviors caused by an underlying condition would be discrimination. One might ask, “What about everyone else’s rights?” Whether or not this is a satisfactory answer, the one-to-one is there to help ensure everyone else can have his or her right to an education unimpeded by the behavior of one disruptive student. This one-to-one is part of a system of supports used to balance the needs (read: behavior issues) of students with disabilities and the students around them.

That system of supports frequently involves outside agencies. The IEP team might determine the need for a one-to-one. The school usually has the responsibility of providing it. However, an agency might end up providing it instead. An interagency team could decide a wraparound service needs to be in place that includes school hours. If the IEP team signs off on it, the agency likely will provide a therapeutic support staff worker or similar service provider. This will be on the agency’s dollar, which is supported through the family’s insurance. Should the recommendation indeed make its way into the IEP as a statement of need, the school has an obligation to supply a substitute in the absence of the person appointed by the agency. Providing this can be tricky, but the school has to do it.

Appointing a one-to-one comes with a host of potential pitfalls. To start, when schools use their staff members for these positions, someone tends to get pulled from some other post where that someone had been needed. The staff members who are used as one-to-ones might not have the most sophisticated training to support their new positions and instead might be poorly prepared for such a role. Many school-appointed one-to-ones are marvelous additions to teams and do a tremendous service for schools, students, and families. To be frank, however, many of the individuals who end up in these roles aren’t well suited in terms of temperament, reliability, and overall professionalism. The positions don’t pay well and the work can be highly challenging, leading to a shallow pool of capable candidates. When schools outsource the service, as many are beginning to do, every person coming through the door is a wildcard.

Therapeutic support staff workers usually have more training and higher salaries than school-appointed one-to-ones. They can bring a greater degree of clinical fidelity and efficacy to their work. The agencies they serve tend to require more of them than schools require of one-to-ones. The supportive program they offer should align with what the school is offering, but most of the time it is more specific and exacting. Again, many of these workers are effective professionals who help students steer straight. Some are liabilities per their incompetency. Crucially, they’re not school employees. This often creates discord regarding professional expectations.

Even with effective staff in place, one-to-one support can become a crutch for students. It generally can’t be replicated for adults in work or school settings. It reduces the possibility of fostering accountability for behaviors. The later into schooling it goes, the more reliant students are likely to be on it. Rarely does it help change a set of behaviors. Efforts to do that might be built in to programming, but the point is to mitigate the effects of behaviors on learning, or even to lessen the impact of behaviors on everyone’s safety. The service might do these things, but isn’t likely to completely extinguish behaviors or address the internal conditions that could be causing them.

One-to-one support is suitable and possibly necessary for students with the most disruptive and difficult to manage behaviors. These students are the least likely to be able to participate functionally in productive adult lives. The service typically doesn’t increase the likelihood of post-secondary success. It’s a bandage at best that keeps disruptions from bleeding all over the school day. Following a fundamental relationship in special education, it’s another example of the students with the least potential getting the most expensive support. Each person can decide whether or not this relationship is justifiable. Keep this mind, though: “justifiable” gets into conceptual territory, while “necessary” deals with the practical here-and-now. Ask a school to remove all the one-to-ones in the building for a week and see what everyone has to say about the need for the service Friday afternoon. Like it or not, it’s here.


One is the Costliest Number

The Danger of True Believers

A breed of exceptional professionals stands out in schools. They announce their presence. Those around them witness them working for a greater good with a zeal that can be inspiring or troubling, depending on perspective. Educators of this breed can’t be convinced that they’re doing anything but the most important work anyone could be doing. They’re also convinced they’re the only ones doing this work right. These educators are True Believers.

Who are True Believers? These are teachers and administrators who genuinely buy generic educational rhetoric. They live by motivational posters and inspirational quotes. They believe wholeheartedly that schools are the most important change agent in any young person’s life. They believe every student can perform at grade level and can do this well. They refuse to believe any student can’t do this. Their conviction defines them.

True Believers readily subscribe to the latest in educational panaceas. They insist that macro-level policies will improve outcomes for all students, if followed with fidelity. They find a policy or a program or a methodology and dive into it, convinced this will be the answer to some issue of underperformance. They love throwing technology at any deficit while maintaining how the “old-fashioned” way of doing anything retains its merit. All along, they know they know better than anyone else does.

Often, True Believers find their work in schools to be more than a job. They invest the whole of their being into what they do. They never really stop working, filling their evenings and weekends with school business. This is admirable in many respects, except that True Believers tend to not let anyone around them forget how dedicated they are. The True Believer frequently comes off as condescending and even self-righteous. They have a mission. Anyone who isn’t on board is in the way.

Teachers might start as True Believers. Those fresh recruits with glowing eyes hit the field ready to serve students and to be that change agent. The realities of the field smash many of these new teachers back into the surf like a salty, frigid wave. Others make it past the breakers and end up thriving in the chop. The survivors remain for their reasons, chiefly their belief in a mission. Importantly, many stick around long enough to become administrators.

Actually, a disproportionate number of administrators are True Believers. The True Believer tends to be ambitious, so aspiring to administration makes sense. Administration can appear to be the most efficient avenue for implementing change. A True Believer isn’t likely to see administration at the building level as being akin to middle management. Instead, a True Believer will see it as a genuine leadership opportunity. When thwarted by the practical frustrations of managing schools, True Believers sometimes make their way to district level administrative positions.

The trouble with True Believers really begins when they wield power. Prior to that, they’re merely insufferable. When they have the opportunity to take the rhetoric to which they subscribe and subject everyone else to it, they can unwittingly do some damage. They become inflexible and insistent. They adopt a “no excuses” model and attach this to everything. They see success as the end goal of education and they define success by narrow, quantifiable measures. The worst is that they see their brand of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” or whatever as the recipe for fixing all issues. They expect to fix these issues within the span of a school year, even though no one else has figured out how to fix them in 60 or 70 years. Plus, they’re fully prepared to blame teachers when everything falls apart. Their version of leadership ends up being divisive and leads to low morale.

The lofty expectations of True Believers undermine their goals. They want all students to achieve at high levels. However, they use the least helpful means of targeting students who struggle to do this. The students they attack most often are students with IEPs. Like it or not, these tend to be the lowest performing and worst behaved students. True Believers have a nasty panache for suspending these students and pressing for their failure. Administrators sometimes fear taking any action against students with IEPs, but True Believers frequently show contempt and disregard for the protections these students receive. They want to extend “no excuses” policies in the face of federal law, thinking of themselves as truth-seekers in the process. In doing so, they reveal how silly the concept of “no excuses” really is.

No one can talk with True Believers about the possibility of anything being beyond the control of a school. Suggesting something is outside the scope of what a school can handle is seen as an attack on their faith. Because of this, they end up supporting legislative mandates that heap unrealistic responsibilities on school staff. This makes True Believers unwitting enemies of other school employees. They also set themselves up for bitterness. When their schools continue to underperform, they become incensed, ready to blame the faithless around them for the failures of students. Worse than this is when they misinterpret anomalies in data as evidence of their coveted policies finally working. It reinforces their beliefs even when the slightest examination would prove their policies didn’t in fact affect the results. Again, they can’t be convinced otherwise.

True Believers are more than vain and annoying. They’re indeed dangerous. They’re least harmful in the classroom, but even at this level they can be exhausting as colleagues. As building administrators, they force their unrealistic visions and end up marginalizing the students who most need their support. When they get the opportunity to be policy makers, their insistence and commitment to canned rhetoric lead to their investment in ideas that undermine what teachers are trying to do. Even if their policies have little effect, they still can inflict their will as ratings officers. Think about working under someone who will never believe he or she could be wrong about anything. Dealing with the True Believer in power can end up being the most tiring part of working in a school.

The Danger of True Believers

The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

This spring, I was having a conversation with a colleague about my career choices. I candidly shared with her how much I disliked what I’d been doing every day for several consecutive years. Her face decomposed to a frown as I spoke. She listened with quiet concern as I explained how little interest I had in my prospects for a new job. While I didn’t think I’d like any of them, I figured I’d end up taking one for the sake of maintaining an income. This upset her. With a look of pity in her eyes, she remarked, “Oh Jeff, you have to love what you do.” What an arrogant sentiment.

Most people in America and around the rest of the world don’t love what they do. I’d suggest roughly half don’t even like what they do. If anything, they’re grateful just to have the opportunity to have something to do in exchange for pay. The best most people can do is to hope to find something tolerable. Simply not hating a job is enough for many. Insisting people love their job is dismissive of the millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide who have no such opportunity to do what they really want to do.

This idea of loving what we do is a spoiled, middle-class American concept. Some of it stems from the years of having parents, teachers, and inspirational posters tell us to follow our dreams. The rest comes from a particular conception of what work is. Rather than a means to an end—a way to support one’s existence— some aspire to make it the end itself. For this somewhat elitist minority, work is a calling. It might be something they believe in or some attempt at personal accomplishment, but it becomes more than just work for them. It becomes what they do, not just what they do for a living. The truth is, decidedly few people have lives like this.

Finding a job to love assumes chasing dreams actually will result in something worthwhile. Sometimes this works. Stories circulate about it working. People get swept up in success stories. These are meant to inspire, but they’re significant because they’re rare. They’re the uncanny ammunition of motivational speakers. A person might dream of writing for a living until the reality of working tirelessly to earn maybe $5000 per year crushes that dream. The same goes for dozens of vocations people chase out of idealistic fantasy rather than practical need. How many people really fulfill their desire to do what they want to do? For that matter, how many people find work they even slightly enjoy doing? Yes, examples exist of those who do. The counter-examples are more plentiful, just less celebrated.

This insistence regarding self-fulfillment and vocational bliss is the arrogant part. People who enjoy their acquired stations often look down in not-so-quiet resentment at those who aren’t satisfied with their lot. A tendency to cast blame exists. Those who have found some kind of coveted occupational actualization might think people who aren’t happy should do something about their unhappiness. The dissatisfied should push to improve their situation and if they don’t, they only have themselves to blame.

Exerting effort isn’t always a recipe for success, though. Plenty of people work hard and make all the prescribed moves, but still fail to find satisfaction in their careers. It isn’t necessarily their fault. At the same time, a great many of those who are content with what they have actually lucked into their circumstances. Those who have what they want too often view what they have as an accomplishment rather than a windfall, just as often as those who do not tend to blame circumstance for their shortcomings.

Beyond ideological exchanges between haves and have-nots, there remains that insistence. Do people really need to enjoy their work? Is work about enjoyment? Isn’t it more about securing a living and supporting the balance of our endeavors? The goal seems like it should be finding something we’re able to do in exchange for pay, not necessarily something we love doing. Matching this with personality is a bonus. Matching it with lifelong aspirations is wishful thinking.

Certainly, spending too much of life working a detestable job would be bad for one’s health. If a distressing job detracts too much from quality of life, quit. No one owes so much to any endeavor to continue laboring for it in spite of personal wellbeing. A gulf lies between not liking work and actively hating it. Everyone is entitled to walk away if necessary.

Most jobs aren’t that bad, though. They might not be satisfying or meaningful, but they usually aren’t unbearable. We typically can go through the motions without much incident. Sure, doing something somewhat enjoyable would be preferred. But how much should we emphasize this in our search for work? What about those who lack the skills to do much more than the most menial jobs? Should they be held to this standard of having to hold a job they love? Can we expect that everyone will find something fulfilling to do?

The notion isn’t based on most people’s reality. It overemphasizes the fortunate individual and is part of a self-indulgence that is one of the least flattering aspects of people born since the mid-to-late 20th Century. Maybe people subscribing to this notion aren’t anymore at fault for doing so than those they criticize for not taking more initiative. I can’t help but think the people who embrace this fantasy are out-of-touch with how the majority of people live. The sentiment might not be arrogant. It might be naïve.

The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

I’m a quitter. Rather than feeling ashamed about this, I recognize the trait as a survival adaptation. Several times, I’ve been able to admit when the balance between income and wellbeing has tipped in the wrong direction. A person doesn’t have to love his or her job, but that person shouldn’t hate his or her job, either. Some work environments are poor enough to make leaving justifiable, even if doing this means giving up a steady paycheck or abandoning responsibilities. In special education, being able to realize this doesn’t make me an exception.

Twice I’ve walked away from my chosen field. I nearly walked away while still an undergraduate. Irrationally, I went ahead and started a career despite my apprehension. I never found that inspiration some take from each day spent working with students. My day-to-day of working in schools dissolved my dignity. The field found one way after another to wear at my will. I suppose working in the classroom had its encouraging moments, but working in administration took years off my life. No matter how hard I worked, results were the same: disappointing. I had to accept that staying around wasn’t going to make anything better. It was going to continue making me miserable, though.

I was able to walk away each time because I didn’t feel an obligation to stay that was more powerful than the push I felt to leave. To be fair, I had the financial stability to be able to fearlessly quit. Not everyone has this. Some who continue only do so because they can’t afford the risk of leaving. Aside from this advantage, I recognized that any obligation to stay only existed in my head. This was a critical realization I’d like to pass to others who press on without regard for the numerous signs telling them to stop.

Teachers, whether on the cusp of leaving a position or the field as a whole, need to understand that they don’t owe anyone anything. They might feel they do because of connections with students or to a community. This is understandable, but a few points are important here. First, a person’s own mental health should be the priority. No one will be much help to anyone else if overcome by work-related depression or anxiety. Getting out with mental health intact is crucial to quality of life. Next, if a teacher chooses to leave, someone else will be along to pick up the slack. This happens all the time. Colleagues are used to it. Students are used to it. Everyone is replaceable. The belief that any individual is irreplaceable is foolish. Schools move on with or without specific team members. Finally, if a teacher leaves one school for another, there always will be new students to teach. Connections can be made elsewhere. As much as everyone would like to believe otherwise, educational professionals are movable parts in a larger machine.

With all that established, this notion of owing anything must be dismissed. In this field, people tend to dress up teaching as a more than just a job. It can be (and maybe should be if it’s to be done effectively), but at its essence, it isn’t different than anything else anyone does for money. A teaching position is an agreement between a trained professional and school to render services provided to students in exchange for pay and medical benefits. That’s it. After contractual requirements are completed, nothing is owed, at least not in an absolute sense. Teachers might feel they owe something, but I would refer them to the preceding paragraph.

Quitting certainly has repercussions. On the school’s end, resources are strained in the search for a replacement. Former colleagues might have to assume some of the deserter’s previous role. For students, stability is upended. The quality of instruction could suffer under a succession of substitutes. For the teacher who quits, a departure could be a dark spot on a resume. It definitely brings a disruption in income, savings, and benefits. It might even represent a personal failure for some.

The guilt needs to be overcome, though. Anyone who leaves any job causes a rift. This rift gets repaired in every other field just as it does in education. The teacher who feels guilt over leaving might be artificially inflating his or her importance. Some teachers who quit do leave quite a void, but again, the educational wheel keeps turning.

Instead of focusing on the negative effects of leaving, teachers who feel they’ve had enough should consider the negative effects of staying. This might be as self-centered as feeling vital to a school’s mission, but I’d argue it’s more important. Teachers need not be martyrs. If any teacher is taking too severe a psychological beating by trying to tough it out, that teacher needs to consider getting out. When the tolls associated with staying outweigh the benefits of leaving, teachers need to drop the guilt and just go. Too many burned out teachers stick around past the point of effectiveness. Quitting isn’t a crime. It might be the best decision a struggling teacher can make. The business of education will continue in the absence of any one teacher. Life will continue for that teacher, too (and might be better for it).

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover

Articles about urban education tend to have a negative tone. Writers relay the sorry state of schools or attack the funding structures that contribute to these sorry states. Rarely do writers come forth with good news from schools in cities. Many use expressions such as “the trenches” or “the front lines” to describe classrooms. The analogies might be exaggerated, but the sentiment is telling. This sentiment hints at a plain but frustrating set of answers to a simple but persistent question: why do urban schools bleed staff?

Everyone in the field knows this is a problem. Popular understanding of the problem isn’t as ubiquitous. The people it affects most—students and parents—might understand it the least. Older students often think they know, but they sometimes assume the most obvious reasons are the only reasons. They might not have enough information to realize the deeper issues. Parents might have a better idea, but might not want to acknowledge the reasons. However, they get reminded of the effects every fall when their children return to school to meet the ten teachers who replaced those who left the previous spring. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are closer to the causes, although they often see their own circumstances rather than any wider phenomena.

The reasons, for readers who don’t already know, are as follows. The order of importance will vary for the individual teachers who flee, but one of the most common reasons is pay. Urban schools often start new teachers at rates that are competitive with neighboring suburban districts. They need to do this to attract recruits. After just a few years, most of these urban schools no longer can keep pace with what neighboring districts offer. Money can make the decision for new teachers looking to pay off loans, buy homes, and start families. Closely related is support for professional development, specifically tuition reimbursement. Urban schools rarely offer as much assistance with paying for continuing education as suburban schools do. This is crucial for new teachers seeking additional credits or degrees needed to maintain certification. It also helps in schools that offer higher salaries to those teachers with more education. Benefits are less often cited as a reason, but in urban schools that face frequent labor disputes, teachers can get tired of the push and pull. The increased likelihood of staff cuts and associated instability also makes teachers nervous enough to want to leave preemptively. Finally, where residency restrictions don’t apply, teachers quite often choose to live outside the cities in which they teach. This becomes more likely the higher up the salary scale they climb. Traveling into the city everyday starts to become a bother. If a job closer to home opens, teachers tend to jump on it.

After these highly practical and undeniably concrete reasons, teachers look at some intangibles. Teaching in the suburbs has a lure to it, or perhaps a perceived lack of disadvantages. Urban schools face magnified versions of the ills other schools face, along with some ills unique to them. The mythos is that these magnified and unique ills vanish in suburban schools. They don’t completely, but resources usually aren’t as strained and student needs typically aren’t as severe. Less specific is this nebulous idea of becoming “damaged goods” in the eyes of potential employers. The fear is that principals of suburban schools will have such a negative opinion of urban schools that they’ll view any teacher having come from one as being unworthy of consideration. An assumption precedes urban teachers that they’ve learned bad habits and haven’t picked up and good ones while in any urban school position. This leads to a fear among urban teachers of getting trapped by staying too long.

Other reasons related to conditions within the schools have nearly as much weight. Parents don’t like to hear about these, but denying these exist is nothing short of delusional. Working in urban schools is particularly exhausting. All the tribulations of striving in poorly funded schools with disproportionately needy students taxes the will. Teachers might really want to continue pressing on for their students, but the students don’t always make this appealing. While students can’t rightly be blamed, some of them bring caustic emotional baggage to school that manifests as behaviors that are perfectly incongruent to anything productive. This doesn’t describe a majority, but the minority is too distressed and distressing to ignore. The number of emotionally imbalanced students is disproportionate. Many have mental illnesses and related emotional needs teachers simply aren’t qualified to contend with. At the same time, many of these students have underdeveloped skills that appear to stagnate despite all efforts to address them. Trying to make headway amid all this eventually drains. Neighboring districts have their own needy students, but usually not to the same degree or in such high incidence. The climate in schools with so much concentrated human dysfunction can get the better of teachers, especially when supports are lacking. Few teachers like to admit this in surveys and exit interviews, but maladjusted students often inspire their flight to the suburbs.

Inadequate pay and the funding structures behind it contribute to turnover, just as difficult students and the systemic problems in their communities do. Another unheralded contributor is the quality of teachers coming to urban schools. The best young teachers aren’t all clamoring to teach in depressed inner cities. Urban schools too often get teachers who couldn’t find work elsewhere. This is an unfair generalization, as many outstanding new teachers come to urban schools every year. So do some lousy ones. Urban schools can’t be as picky as other schools if they wish to fill vacancies. This influences their willingness to bring in teachers in varying states of certification. These teachers might turn out to be wonderful, but they start in a noteworthy deficit.

All this piles up on urban teachers. As it does, don’t forget that urban schools face all the same hurdles other schools face regarding adherence to standards and emphasis on state assessments. Some argue these disproportionately affect urban schools. Teachers lament this everywhere, so it’s just one more factor opening the exit door for urban teachers. These are large-scale factors. Urban teachers also die a little each day as they feel the nitty-gritty effects of budget constraints. The copier is broken again. There’s no toilet paper in the staff bathroom. We have to move our class to the auditorium because the heater is broken in the classroom. No subs are available today, so a few of us lose our preps to cover classes. Groan.

Combining it all, no one should be surprised that after two, three, maybe five years urban teachers cease to be urban teachers. They leave. Some leave the field, while others seek supposedly greener educational pastures. How many former urban teachers talk about how that city school in which they used to teach was a great place to work? True, they’re biased because they left, but they still left. The number leaving says more about the schools than about the teachers. We should celebrate those who stay—their dedication, their drive, and their endurance. We really shouldn’t blame those who leave, though. They signed up for it, but knowing the scope of what they’ve signed up for is tricky at the start. Feeling it is something else entirely.

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

Everyone who has any contact with special education can attest to its languid pace. Certain processes move forward at a crawl. School employees and parents alike lament this unfortunate tendency. Newcomers to the field gradually become accustomed to it. Everyone involved seems fond of commiserating about the red tape and redundancy. They simply accept this like they accept bad weather. Why?

Some of those doing the complaining might be jaded and cynical. However, others might be accurately describing the reality of special education. It does come wrapped in layers of bureaucracy and regulation. Most of these layers are meant to protect the rights of students and parents, while some exist so schools can protect themselves. Laws inadvertently create some of the gridlock in the field, but certainly not all of it.

One of the fundamental reasons special education moves so slowly is that everyone working in the field has too much to do to get any of it done effectively. This is a generalization, of course. Some schools presumably have adequate staff to serve their relatively small special needs populations. Then there are all other schools, where the effort to meet the demands created by exceptional learners is an exercise in frantic scrambling.

The following is a typical scenario. A school has a set team of special education teachers, related service providers, and administrators. This team might grow based on the number of identified students in the school and the neediness of these students. Then again, it might not. Already busy with providing requisite services, these teams are forced into unsustainable overdrive by requests for additional services by parents and advocates. The professionals who only have so many hours in each workday (and would like to have lives outside work) do what they can to respond to these requests. Their responses routinely fall short, too often because IEP teams agree to do what they probably can’t do. It usually isn’t a matter of competence or will. It’s a matter of time.

As school teams fail to meet demands, more time is lost in attempting to redress the failure. Legal entanglements ensue. Sometimes these end up benefiting students. Often they don’t in any measurable way. While teams are mired in focusing on a few extraordinarily squeaky wheels, other students suffer. Their needs too often get neglected (or at least glanced over) if their parents aren’t as noisy. These parents might become noisy, though.

At the classroom level, special education teachers only can handle so much. Their training isn’t going to cover all the complexities they’ll face. Parents might be aghast to know how little special education teachers actually know about their craft. Teachers make mistakes. They overlook details, which sadly is excusable considering the number of details to which they’re beholden. The missteps result in further gridlock as parents and advocates call out the school.

Administrators have limited ability to help. Many aren’t keenly aware of special education protocols, another fact that chills parents. In truth, special education law is so convoluted that few school officials have more than a slight understanding of it. As much as they’d like to help, administrators often are wrapped up in coping with macro tasks such as budget reviews or micro tasks such as student discipline. They’re busy. They sometimes fail to respond to teachers and parents in a timely manner, thus further delaying processes. Special education administrators similarly are too busy to help all the teachers who are trying to soothe impatient parents. Teachers ask them for support, such as approval to move ahead with certain processes the teachers themselves lack the authority to initiate. Special education directors and supervisors receive dozens of emails every day asking for the same. The best they can do is triage, which tends to favor cases concerning money. Parents don’t like when they find out they weren’t a priority.

Unrealistic demands can hurt progress as well, with many parents upset that special education doesn’t seem to be fixing their children. Frequently, parents seek some kind of refund for the poor results. While difficult to prove, a few attorneys might be preying on this more than they’re advocating for the rights of children. In some schools and districts, staff can lose track of who wants what with the number of dissatisfied parents seeking solutions. Parents are in their right (most of the time) to want more for their kids. When they all ask at once, everyone is likely to get less.

Special education creaks along because of all this. The lack of time and the constant racing sometimes stem from staffing issues, which usually are budgetary issues. Each also has to do with how much is being asked of schools by parents (which sometimes results from schools not being able to provide enough due to said budgetary issues). Meanwhile, mandated timelines seem too short for school teams, but parents sometimes find these to be suspiciously too long. The required paperwork and record keeping bog down everything. Little issues such as actually teaching during the day get in the way of special education teachers attending to everything else demanded of them. When teams rush to make everyone happy, they end up making many people upset. One shouldn’t be surprised with how unhappy many people are in the sphere of special education.

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education