A Lingering Need for Clarity

Early in my career as an educator, I believe I became proficient in the art of explanation. I had to explain directions and concepts to students. Most of the students I taught had IEPs, so explaining anything to them could be a nuanced affair. For some students, I had a script to follow when offering simple explanations. Repeating scripted directions the same way every day was exactly what many of my students needed. Procedures or concepts requiring more complicated explanations tested my creativity, but I accepted such challenges. Being a special education teacher also meant explaining documents to parents that some might have otherwise found bewildering. I was comfortable with all of this. I had signed up for it.

As my career unfolded, I found myself having to explain more and more to the adults around me. My job was somewhat peculiar and its requirements changed over time, so I understood to the need to explain what I did all day to friends and family. Few of them had much experience with the population I taught or with special education as a whole. I didn’t mind offering explanations to them, even if I had to repeat myself on occasion. Perhaps they were merely being polite, but many seemed to hang on my words when I shared stories with them highlighting the absurdities of being a special education teacher.

What surprised me throughout my career was how often I had to explain the essence of special education to my colleagues. I’m using ‘colleagues’ in the most encompassing sense. Working with student teachers put me in touch with those on the precipice of their careers. They knew special education more based on what others had shared with them than through their own experiences. I forgave their misconceptions, though I was tempted to fault those who had been responsible for teaching them. I know I left college with only a vague idea of what was to come. Beyond student teachers, I found a lack of clarity about special education among veteran teachers and administrators alike. I could understand my students not being clear about why they had IEPs. I could understand the parents of my students having distorted expectations about special education. Finding fellow teachers and even principals who didn’t get the basic premise of special education reminded me that a large-scale lack of understanding must exist.

This platform will not allow me to redress the issue. I know enough about teaching and learning to know that expressing a message clearly to someone and then having that person repeat it back to me in his or her own words, experience it again using several modalities, and practice using it across environments over time still will not ensure that person will learn anything. This won’t be certain even if I’m keeping strict progress records and employing interventions when necessary. Being a special education teacher did teach me something, I suppose. Understanding this, I’m going to attempt to offer some clarity nonetheless. I’ll do so from this point forward as though you’re a total novice. Ready?

Special education is a service. In practice, it’s a set of supports provided to students with qualifying disabilities. These supports are meant to give identified students access to the general education curriculum to the greatest extent possible. The supports largely consist of accommodations to the delivery of content as well as modifications to the content itself. If per an evaluation a student needs instruction different enough from the general education curriculum to warrant an alternate curriculum, than that is what the student will get. Occasionally, additional services like assorted therapies are needed to help students access the appropriate curriculum. Stated briefly once again, special education is a service.

Importantly, I said this is what special education is in practice. In the United States, special education is governed by the IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, if you don’t know), a curious law if there ever was one. The IDEA is a set of protections for students with disabilities and their parents. The protections are in place to prevent schools from infringing upon the rights of students identified as having disabilities. The law does this primarily by putting mandates in place for states and school districts to follow. It also gives the parents of these students ample opportunity to legally cry foul if they feel a school hasn’t fulfilled an obligation. One of these obligations happens to the provision of the supportive services I’ve described. The services are what can be seen and measured in schools, thus constituting special education in practice. On a larger scale, special education is a canopy of legal protections, which includes the supportive services.

At the core of special education law is the notion of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Students with disabilities are expected to follow the general education curriculum with the supportive services their teams feel are appropriate. Though services might be necessary, each service is viewed as a restriction according to the law. A strange dichotomy exists in that students are to have as few restrictions as possible, because they have a right to access the general education curriculum unabated. Their LRE is the closest to unabated access the students can get as individuals. At the same time, they have a right to the necessary supportive services, which are seen as restrictions. The balance between these poles is a student’s specific Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), another concept central to special education law. Perhaps this give and take between LRE and FAPE may appear confusing and at times contradictory, but such is special education in our great land. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by how many colleagues have struggled to understand all of this.

Here is what special education is not: teaching. Here is what special education teachers have no guarantee of ever doing: teaching. The concept I’ve had to explain to colleagues most often is the basic description of what special education teachers are paid to do. Their job is to provide services. Actual instruction is just one service that a special education teacher might provide. When I reviewed my first job description, it did not contain the word “teach” in any variant. It did contain the word “service” several times. My role was clear from the start. I would design supportive services for students and ensure the effective provision of these services through detailed programs (Individualized Education Programs, or IEPS, to be exact). I might teach skills or content to students, but more likely I would team with another teacher to help him or her implement the accommodations and modifications the students on my caseload needed. As an IEP coordinator, my job was going to be overseeing service programs, not teaching students. Increasingly, this is what most special education teachers do. They support. They make certain services happen. With the exception of those teaching especially needy populations, most do not run their own classrooms. They’re on the payroll to put services in place. Really, they’re on the payroll because the IDEA indicates they have to be.

Explaining special education in these terms has left startled and defeated expressions on the faces of incoming and veteran educators. The truth can do that to people. What I’ve tried to instill in others is the concept of a service model. The analogy isn’t perfect, but essentially the school and its special education teachers provide a service to clients. The clients are students and their parents. They aren’t exactly customers, because they aren’t paying. They have rights that the school must recognize and honor. Services are among these rights. Special education teams are in place to provide these services satisfactorily. Special education teachers get paid to oversee this endeavor of providing services. That is all. They might teach, or they might not. The most important aspect of their job is to design and implement appropriate IEPs for students. Anything else is ancillary and at the discretion of district officials. No matter what nonsense a principal might require of a special education teacher, the law is clear about what that teacher’s job must be.

Feel free to reread if you have to. Make yourself some graphic organizers or mnemonics, or explain what you’ve read to a partner. Trace the word “service” in a sandbox, or do whatever else you need to do to understand what special education actually is. I understand that those getting started in the field could be perplexed, as schools of education typically focus on theory and pedagogy. I was perplexed until I saw that first job description. I understand that students with IEPs could be flustered by their own need for services and that parents could hold misguided ideas about what special education can do. For colleagues under the delusion of being teachers, please understand that even if you do some teaching during the day, teaching is a subset of what you are required to do as a special education teacher under the IDEA. Perhaps the word “teacher” should be stricken from job descriptions and replaced with “special education service provider” or “educational program specialist.” Maybe the existing “IEP coordinator” is clinical enough. Clarity might help those in the field grasp their roles while preventing those investigating the field from signing up for the wrong line of work. It also might prevent me from having to continue repeating myself.

The quiz will be Friday. Of course, if you need extra time or have to take it in a separate room, arrangements will be made.

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A Lingering Need for Clarity

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