Special educations teachers have a mission. They come to it willingly, and many are eager to engage it. Before starting the mission, they don’t know all the details, but they have some sense of its urgency. The mission begins and these green soldiers meet doubt. Odds appear greater than anticipated. Casualties mount. Dread encroaches. Many begin to question if they can accomplish their mission, or if anyone could. In droves, the soldiers flee. A few survive to recount the horrors of battle.
Dramatic metaphors don’t capture the essence of what special education teachers face. New and veteran special education teachers have a job that hedges on impossible. This isn’t to make excuses for the performance of these teachers or their students. Instead, this is to emphasize the possibility that special education as a field asks too much of the undertrained few who come to the fight. Please understand: it is a fight.
Three principle perils await special education teachers. They don’t receive enough training to do what they need to do. They play too many roles to be able to adequately fill any of them. Finally and most importantly, far too much is a stake at their level of accountability.
The first peril meets them before they start teaching, yet they don’t recognize it until far too late. Teacher training programs focus on pedagogy. These programs stress the use of specially designed instruction to address differences in learning styles and capacities. Content tends to be abstract and theoretical. New teachers too often enter the field with scant exposure to crucial legal and procedural obligations. This is dangerous for everyone involved.
The effectiveness of teacher training programs is questionable. Many prospective teachers get precious little opportunity to practice applying the theory they’ve learned. Certification requirements vary tremendously across states. Because states need warm bodies in classrooms, programs feel some pressure to graduate as many teachers as possible. Weak candidates may receive teaching credentials. The quality of incoming candidates is another issue, as special education majors historically have carried lower SAT scores than most other education majors. This is in contrast with their high GPAs, making suspect the stringency of these programs.
Special education teachers must fulfill several roles for which they aren’t likely to be prepared. Unlike those teachers who must be experts in a specific content or skill area, special education teachers must be experts on students and their disabilities. However, the range of disabilities they may encounter is far too wide for them to know how to engage each. These same special education teachers also must know content, whether or not they’ve had training in it. They could be charged with teaching content to the students on their caseloads. Along with knowing the content, they must know how to adapt it to the needs of a school’s most vulnerable students. Per their training, they’re more likely to know how to adapt material than teach it outright. While doing this for their needy students, special education teachers sometimes must act as de facto counselors. All teachers must be sensitive to emotional needs of students, but for teachers of students with special needs, anticipating and responding to emotional needs may be the priority. Added to this mix is a constant barrage of complicated and time-sensitive paperwork. This paperwork can eclipse all other priorities in a special education teacher’s workday, a fact preparation programs seem to downplay. Balancing these roles is asking much from a person with a Bachelor’s degree.
Special educations teachers have another role, and one which is more nuanced than any their general education peers fill. As IEP coordinators, special education teachers must be the intermediary between the school and the parent regarding all aspects of a student’s program, including progress. They must oversee all the services a student is supposed to receive. Parents can be at odds with schools regarding progress and services. Special education teachers sometimes inherit battles started long before they had any involvement with a case. Being the mouthpiece of the school can be tense when the school has to report something the parent won’t like. Though administrators may assist, special education teachers frequently are the ones in the proverbial trenches fighting with adversarial parents.
Conflict between the school and parents is the core of the final peril. Special education teachers must deal with the most litigious area of education. The entire field of special education started from lawsuits and it has grown largely because of additional lawsuits. Most of what happens in special education is either a response to a legal precedent or a protection against further litigation. More than any other teachers, special education teachers must remain vigilant with record keeping and reporting. Special education law allows multiple ways for parents to seek damages from schools. Special education teachers step into crosshairs when they take their jobs. Mistakes don’t merely have the potential to disrupt a student’s progress; mistakes can end up costing a school district tens of thousands of dollars. This pressure is particular to those who sign up to teach exceptional students.
The flight of new special education teachers from the field shouldn’t be surprising. Considering what they face, the number who stay should be more of a surprise. These idealistic champions of disabled students take on a mission requiring more of them than they might realize. The scope of the job is broader than any other in education. At a time when other professions are specializing, the field of education relies on teachers with slapdash training to deal with its most nebulous and cumbersome issues. The greatest non-surprise should be the poor reports coming from the front lines. The field puts soldiers in an unwinnable war.