The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs seems to be decreasing. This has sounded a few alarms. Amid the speculation about causes and the panic about fallout, new enrollees are continuing to arrive in colleges of education. Perhaps against all reason, some of these recruits are signing up to become special education teachers. How is this still a draw?

The enrollment trickle deserves a brief look. A perception of deteriorating conditions in the field might be stopping perspective teachers before they start. Testing requirements for certification could be too much of a barrier for some candidates. States are offering alternate paths to certification, some of which lure non-traditional students who now might balk at four-year programs. At the same time, other fields might be exerting more of a pull.

These factors might have a real effect, but the drop isn’t exclusive to education. The last few years have seen a temporary dip in the number of 18-20 year olds available to enroll in any programs per a birth rate decline in the mid-90s. Also, after a few years of relaxing admission standards, some universities are tightening these, thus creating a drop in overall enrollment (or more accurately, a leveling off). The intimidating costs of any college education could be another deterrent.

Even with these influences affecting admissions, a drop in the number of new teacher candidates still appears to exist relative to decreases in other majors. Colleges of education around the country report dwindling numbers. The surface impression is that the field has lost some status among young people. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the steady stream of negative press about it. Sadly, much of it is accurate.

This would seem poised to affect special education disproportionately. It might be the least attractive arena of education for incoming teachers. Many districts consider special education a high-needs area, partly due to the number of students needing complex services, but partly due to relatively small number of candidates willing to be special education teachers. Special education comes with the inherent difficulty of teaching students with disabilities coupled with the most maddening bureaucracy in the field. Everyone knows this from the start.

Unsurprisingly, shortages among special educations teachers predate the current dearth of enrollees. What might be surprising is that shortages aren’t necessarily worsening under this most recent decline. Reports are mixed, as the numbers aren’t evenly distributed across states, universities, or even departments within universities. In some colleges of education, the special education programs are the only ones growing. Applicants for special education teaching jobs are still approaching districts. Certain regions can experience a glut due to the number of graduates coming from teaching programs. At least a few people continue to want to be special education teachers, possibly for reasons that defy rationality.

What draws them? Old arguments might have included somewhat permissive entrance criteria, employability and security, and pay compared with other four-year degrees. Some of these notions have taken a beating. Alternate paths to certification have been springing up just as traditional paths have become bumpier. Employability might be stable in many areas for special education teachers, but job security for all teachers has changed, as many who have been displaced by budget cuts can attest. Yes, these do hit special education teachers too sometimes, especially in districts losing seats to charter schools. Pay has never been a great incentive, but now some sharing industry jobs are creeping up on what a beginning teacher might earn in some states.

Is there anything else? What about autonomy for special education teachers? This has dissolved somewhat per inclusion and the move towards co-teaching and push-in support. How about the small number of students? Ratios still favor special education teachers, but the neediness of students has increased per the amount of service and intervention needed. Aren’t special education teachers exempt from grading? Well, sometimes, but more than half the job is now meetings and paperwork, displacing any work saved.

What could be left? One possibility is young people maintain a vision of supporting students with disabilities that hasn’t yet been tainted but the unsavory aspects of the field. This could be for the best, because it might allow for another remaining attraction to develop: the broad idea of helping others. This might be more of a specific draw in special education than in other teaching disciplines. Elementary and secondary education majors want to positively affect the lives of students as well, the aim being to do so by cultivating independence through skill and content instruction. Special education teachers certainly want to do the same, but there often is an heightened emphasis on the charitable aspects of the field. The desire to work on behalf of people who experience a disadvantage of some kind is characteristic of special education teachers. Many see themselves as being advocates as much as instructors, championing the civil rights of students. Again, this exists for other teachers, but it is deeply embedded in the motivations of many special education teachers.

This might be the root of what continues to draw candidates to the field. It isn’t about the logistics. It’s about a drive to support those who need support. This drive has a rational component, but it also is highly emotional for many. Indeed, some come to the field because of experiences with siblings who have disabilities, or because the candidates themselves have disabilities. Some second-career special education teachers become involved because they have children with disabilities. Religious reasons drive some, as do social-political reasons.

The lasting draw could be that students continue to have special needs and schools continue to need to pay people to teach them. Federal guidelines dictate certain student-to-teacher ratios, so a set number of teachers tends to remain. Still, against all the reasons not to begin a career in special education, candidates step up to do so each year. The reasons above are independent of unfavorable logistics. This could stand to make them independent of at least some of the forces acting on teacher preparation enrollment, resulting in a core of candidates that never diminishes below a particular threshold. The draw remains for those who view the field as more than a vocation.


The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

Some reasonable predictions can be made about outcomes for students. In special education, children with the most severe disabilities might have clear destinies before they start school. For higher functioning children, estimations remain possible, but they can be more difficult and thereby are dangerously suspect. Where students are at the end of high school might not be a good indication of where they have the potential to go. Just because they don’t appear prepared for adult life doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out. I should know.

Throughout high school, I slacked with the worst of them. Sometime during tenth grade, I decided I was only going to do as much work as I could get done during the school day (and only if I felt like it). I ignored major assignments. I drew during class instead of taking notes. I sat quietly, sometimes just staring back at teachers who had the nerve to call on me.

I wasn’t remarkable for anything positive in high school. If teachers noticed me, they noticed an unmotivated kid who wore the same clothing every day. Some would know me as that kid who got caught stealing art supplies (I almost got away with it, too). Others might know me as that kid who asked other kids for the food they were going to throw away at lunch (I didn’t like to see food get wasted). Still others might know me as that kid who penned an essay about shooting a president to get in an encyclopedia (my parents got a call over that one). None of these were good reasons to be noticed or remembered.

I can imagine what my teachers might have said about me, had they noticed me enough to comment. I’m guessing they would’ve described me a waste of potential. They might have remarked about me being dirty and gross. My guess is they didn’t look at me as someone who would someday teach for a living. I wouldn’t have guessed this, either.

Teachers get the opportunity to either relive or correct the mistakes their teachers made. Often, they don’t realize they’re reliving these mistakes until they’ve made a few. I hoped I’d be able to avoid this trap, but I fell for it. Presented with the chance to pass judgment about student potential, I did so repeatedly. I’ll defend myself somewhat. Most of the students I taught had disabilities that would act as definite limitations. I based my predictions on statistical likelihoods. This had some practical merit, but also it was cold and foreclosing.

Experience shaped my perspective, but it had a nasty hand in shaping expectations. Years of watching students flounder after graduation undermined my ability to have hope for more positive outcomes. I worked to prepare students as much as possible for outcomes that seemed appropriate. My sin was letting preconceptions dictate what these outcomes would be. In doing this, I might have had the exact wrong kind of influence.

True, many of these students did have genuine limitations that set what outcomes would be available. I’ve mentioned on this blog the importance channeling transition efforts towards realistic outcomes. I did this. I stand by the decision to work with families to find the best possible transition plan within a student’s reach. I still have to wonder if I might have aimed too low with some students. Instinct tells me I more frequently aimed too high. My instincts might have been warped by cynicism.

I was looking at where students were as they were ready to exit. What isn’t certain when a student is graduating is what that student will be capable of doing three, five, or even ten years later. Many people aren’t ready for adulthood in their late teens or early twenties. Some don’t hit their stride until their late twenties or early thirties. Late blooming has become somewhat of a function of economic circumstances. Even two decades ago, I was scarcely ready for adulthood. I fumbled through college and didn’t establish anything solid for myself until my mid twenties. Any snapshot of me along the way would have revealed a guy who appeared to be somewhat of a mess (and I didn’t have a disability).

My concept of success might have been too narrow as well. Many people in the education business have an unfair tendency to think of post-secondary education and eventual degree attainment as the threshold of success. Having a job that allows for financial independence becomes synonymous with having “made it.” For many students with disabilities, getting any kind of job might be the pinnacle of success. While this might seem a bit detached and impractical, relative contentment probably should be the ultimate benchmark. If a person with a disability works ten hours per week at minimum wage but feels good about the work and about life in general, perhaps that should be enough.

Benefit of the doubt is crucial. Yes, students with disabilities need to work towards practical outcomes and teachers will have an important role in determining what these will be. However, harboring cynicism about student prospects could subtly influence a teacher’s efforts. Even if it doesn’t affect practice, a preconception that students in special education have no chance at any echelon of success can make the day-to-day of the job more grueling than it needs to be. Students might seem unready for adult life when teachers finish with them. That doesn’t mean these students will never figure out a way to thrive that works for their lives. The path to adulthood has become longer and more convoluted. Throwing a disability into this path compounds the complexity. Special educators need to apply their differenciated thinking to expectations. I had trouble with this, but I came around. Many of us need some time to come around.

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

On Not Liking Students

Teachers expect to have some fondness for the students they teach. They enter the field motivated to help students make progress. Their desire to foster success leads them to focus on their students’ most positive attributes. Teachers become cheerleaders for their students. To the great disappointment of many teachers, certain students test that spirit of unwavering support.

Most teachers meet at least a few students they find difficult to like. Expecting to like every student is unrealistic, even for the most idealistic teachers. Special education teachers in particular are likely to work with some students who exhibit behaviors most of society would deem unacceptable. While many special education teachers elect to work with these especially needy students, actually dealing with toxic behaviors day after day can wear at a teacher’s resolve.

Teacher preparation programs tend to leave out some details. Few professors will tell a room full of undergraduates that some of their future students will be unlikeable. Acknowledging this makes starry-eyed teacher candidates uncomfortable. Although this is upsetting to consider, teachers will meet particular students who offer few redeeming or likeable qualities. In place of these qualities will be a host of unsavory attributes that have the potential to lengthen a teacher’s workday and shorten a teacher’s career. Perhaps these students are more pleasant at other times of the day, but teachers have to deal with them during school hours.

Students might be unlikeable for several reasons. Relationships are crucial in education. Sometimes issues might have to do with a mismatch in personality. A student might behave quite differently with one teacher versus another. This doesn’t account for those students with disruptive or antagonistic behaviors that interfere with every relationship they engage. A few students have personalities that bother everyone around them. Often, these students deliberately upset other people for amusement. Others have behaviors that they can’t control resulting from their conditions. They’ll act out by no fault of their own, but this doesn’t make their behaviors any easier to endure.

The larger group consists of students with unlikeable personalities. They have disagreeable, belligerent attitudes. They create problems for others and show little remorse. While some might not understand what they’re doing, some fully understand and revel in it. Teachers can strive to find the good in these students. They can consider how lonely these students might feel. They can try to make a positive difference for them. Occasionally, teachers who reach out in such a way find the students take advantage of them. All sociopaths start somewhere. Society has no shortage of people who make everything around them worse. Classrooms are dotted with budding scam artists, domestic abusers, and assailants. For as much as teachers might wish to turn these students towards more positive pursuits, this fails more often than it succeeds.

Less common are the students who are just as unlikeable, but are unable to control that which makes them so. These students might have conditions that cause them to behave in unorthodox or even violent ways. Behavior modification and medication sometimes help. Sometimes nothing helps. A teacher working with students who have autism or multiple disabilities might face a classroom with two or three students who do little but scream and hit themselves (or others) all day, every day. That teacher might want so badly to help these students, but might not be able to do much beyond keeping them safe, clean, and fed. Feelings of inadequacy are likely, but so is a sense of exhaustion. Some people only can take so much of listening to a student cry and scream to the point of exhaustion, only to repeat when strength returns.

An intriguing dichotomy in special education exists between idealistic acceptance and programmed rejection. A pervading sentiment of acceptance suggests no one should be excluded because of a disability and all differences should be accepted. At the same time, vast amounts of effort go into targeting behaviors caused by disabling conditions and attempting to extinguish these. Advocates for the rights of students with disabilities promote acceptance while practitioners identify unacceptable behaviors to eliminate. The notion of behavior modification suggests that some behaviors are too negative to exist, even if these behaviors are a natural part of who someone is.

Esoteric musing asides, teachers who work with unlikeable students face difficult scenarios. Working with students who exhibit problematic behaviors will accelerate burnout in all but a few teachers. Sadly, some new teachers end up in classes filled with difficult students because no one else wants to teach them. Too often, this forces new teachers out before they get to learn what they’re doing. Veterans can get caught in this as well. Whatever the case, when a teacher dislikes many of his or her students, something has to change. Unlikeable or not, those students are entitled to an education. If a teacher can’t muster the will to help these students despite their behaviors, that teacher might need to get out. Someone else will come along and give it a try. In the meantime, teachers do have to consider their own quality of life, which can take a hit when working with foul-tempered or out-of-control students.

Disliking a few students is human and difficult to avoid. One or two particularly unruly students can ruin a teacher’s day, week, or year. Teachers must seek support when they need it regarding troublesome students. Counselors, administrators, and other team members might be able to offer solace. Focusing on what each student needs is vital for individual teachers and for entire teams. Students found by others to be persistently irritating might be in need of highly nuanced support. Even those who are ungrateful, irrational, or outright sinister deserve a fair opportunity. School officials must remember that this isn’t just a matter of equity (which it is), but it’s a matter of the law.

On Not Liking Students

How Parents Assure Quality Through Persistence

In special education, the most challenging cases schools face aren’t necessarily the ones involving students with the most intense disabilities. Instead, schools might have the greatest difficulty managing cases involving the most demanding parents. Tense relationships can develop between the schools that attempt to provide for students and the parents who insist that what the schools provide is never enough. Progress can get stymied as the parties bicker. However, sometimes the students at the center of these flurries end up with better than average IEPs. Some adage about squeaky wheels would apply here.

Highly involved parents get disproportionate attention by the virtue of being demanding. These parents establish reputations that might follow them throughout their children’s school careers. School officials handle such cases with extra care. The school members of IEP teams give special attention to the wording of documents and have heightened insistence about the correct implementation of services. Nervousness over the possibility of due process leads to the creation of IEPs that indulge the whims of parents. In an effort to avoid conflict, schools can end up creating model IEPs.

This level of commitment to quality should be available for all students with IEPs, regardless of their parents’ relative involvement. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t. Schools scramble to appease persistent parents. With absentee parents, schools might succumb to complacency. School officials meet with frustration when attempting to correspond and collaborate with parents who would rather not be bothered. Calls to home go unanswered and unreturned. Certified mail gets returned undelivered. IEP teams have to meet without parents. These meetings can be little more than perfunctory formalities. Understanding that parents won’t be paying attention, teams might create generic IEPs so team members can move on with their respective days.

The imbalance in attention can disproportionately affect poor students. Schools serving impoverished communities often see less parental participation in IEP creation than schools in more affluent communities do. While multiple factors fuel the imbalance in opportunities between blighted and wealthy schools, parental attention to special education protocols widens the gap. This simply compounds the dearth of opportunities for students in underfunded schools.

Even in schools serving economically depressed communities, the most vocal parents are more likely than absentee parents to secure the best crafted and most carefully implemented IEPs for their children. What tends to happen in any school is these parents unintentionally take attention away from other students. Administrators and teachers focus on the sensitive cases while merely making time for less urgent cases. The attention shift isn’t just in the details of the documents. The less urgent cases actually can suffer as the more urgent ones consume school officials.

As cases become heated, school officials become immersed in documentation, possibly in preparation for mediation or due process hearings. Only so many hours exist in a workday. The layers of paperwork and protocol generated in sensitive cases quite literally devour the time available for school employees, causing them to have to delay more routine maintenance of other cases. Planning and preparing for instruction can get interrupted. Teachers can get called out of their classes to attend emergency meetings to deal with sensitive cases. Special education teachers frequently find they spend grossly imbalanced amounts of time and effort on just a handful of the students on their caseloads.

Parents can’t be blamed for this, however. They are entitled to want the best for their children. In many cases, parents have to be vocal and insistent because schools would otherwise fail to provide adequate support. While parents influence the actions of school officials, they aren’t the ones selecting to disregard less sensitive cases. School officials prioritize out of fear of legal sanctions. The root of this fear really is the special education law that allows parents to seek damages for mistakes made by schools. Ideally, schools would be able to provide for all students with special needs without being harangued to do so. With the myriad constraints schools face, the ideal can be out of reach. Complicating this are parents who demand something beyond the ideal.

For as time and resource consuming as this might be, school teams should create every IEP as though an attorney will be reviewing it. Scrutiny of this level—especially in the early grades—might simultaneously prevent later conflict with parents while ensuring effective programming for students. An early investment in program design could pay dividends for all parties involved. If solid programming and stable relationships are formed early, schools might not have to operate under educational triage later. Those squeaky wheels shouldn’t be the only ones getting grease. Actually, they shouldn’t have to be squeaky in the first place, but that might be chasing an ideal.

How Parents Assure Quality Through Persistence

How Teams Neglect The IEP After The Meeting

The IEP is the core of special education services. Creating an IEP should be a multistep and thoughtful process involving structured collaboration. From the creation of the IEP, teams are charged with the effective delivery of services. An IEP is only as effective as the members of a given IEP team, though. Implementation depends on factors that aren’t always anticipated while the team is gathered at the IEP meeting.

Schools are complicated places. The professionals working in them are human (for now). These professionals find themselves pulled in multiple directions as they attempt to serve students. They get distracted, frustrated, and exhausted. They also make judgments as they prioritize their responsibilities. The most immediate, pressing matters tend to force all other responsibilities out of the way. Unfortunately, this can mean crucial components of a well-designed IEP can get neglected.

Such negligence typically isn’t willful. It’s usually circumstantial. Team members find themselves using a form of educational triage to get through their days. Special education teachers might face this possibility more than other team members. They might be IEP coordinators, but often they’re charged with teaching content as well. When team teaching or even teaching outright to small classes of students with IEPs, the time spent planning, grading, and physically instructing can supplant time spent orchestrating the provisions of IEPs. These teachers might end up addressing what accommodations they have the time to address, selecting either the most crucial ones or those they can arrange in the shortest order. Indeed, some IEPs call for accommodations that require more of special education teachers than they have time to provide, even though their primary responsibility (despite what principals assign them to do) is ensuring the implementation of all parts of the IEP.

Others factors beyond the team’s control can interfere with implementation. As mentioned, an IEP might demand more from the special education teacher than is practical or feasible. Teams might underestimate the difficulty of providing a particular set of accommodations, or they might include accommodations that really aren’t reasonable just to placate a parent. In other scenarios, something mandated by an IEP might not be possible because a program might cease to be available or a staff member who would’ve provided it might get cut. Situations like these don’t constitute negligence, but they can result in important parts of the IEP getting neglected. An special education teacher might be unable to address the IEPs of several students if he or she has one particularly needy student whose behavior or health needs create daily emergencies. Sometimes the needs of such students trump all other concerns. Again, educational triage like this isn’t willful or accidental negligence, but it can result in one or more students not getting what their IEPs detail.

A different scenario is less excusable but also likely. A special education teacher might come to devalue the IEP and dismiss its worth. To such a teacher, the IEP might appear to be a formality, but not a necessary instructional tool. It might be something to write and check off of a to-do list rather than something to implement. Some experienced teachers might feel they can respond to the needs of students without having to use IEPs as guides. With or without experience, a callous few might see the IEP as an intrusion rather than the basis for services. While the majority of special education teachers probably don’t feel this way, the attitude isn’t rare.

Ask a special education teacher to describe the most tedious aspect of the job and the answer likely will have something to do with paperwork. Everything that happens in special education involves documentation. Some aspiring teachers enter the field unprepared for this aspect of the job, while some veterans decry the need for such ever-increasing detail. Nearly everyone agrees the mass of paperwork can overwhelm those who have to process and respond to it. At the center of this red tape tornado is the IEP.

To many special education teachers, the IEP is the embodiment of paperwork imbroglio. An IEP can be dozens of pages long. The information within can be redundant by design. Teams must write IEPs to be highly specific using what can feel like cumbersome parlance. They must base the IEP on mounds of student data. After creating the IEP, teams must document progress towards goals and objectives. Paperwork begets paperwork. All of this paperwork must be in accordance with inflexible timelines. Some special education teachers become resentful of having to manage this beast. Even though these teachers often get extra preparation periods for paperwork completion, a common complaint is the lack of time for dealing with it all. Cynics (realists?) will cite the number of hours they’re contracted to work and cut their losses regarding what they can’t finish. Unsavory paperwork might be saved for another time day after day.

Just as the IEP can lapse as a priority, the IEP meeting runs the risk of becoming an event rather than a juncture in an ongoing conversation. Again, due to lack of time or lack of understanding, many special education teachers view the IEP meeting as a once-and-done event to get through and put behind them. Special education teachers often have apprehension about the IEP meeting. They approach the meeting expecting too much to be riding on it. Not that the meeting isn’t important, but it isn’t intended to be the beginning or end of the collaboration with the rest of the team, especially the parent. Teams can meet as often as needed. The conversation about a student’s education is meant to continue through progress monitoring and reporting. Even if an IEP meeting is productive and all parties leave the meeting satisfied with the program, the meeting isn’t the end of the team’s partnership. The meeting should be one face-to-face moment in a continuing discussion.

The special education teacher isn’t the only team member who might struggle to adhere to the IEP. Most students with IEPs receive instruction in general education classes. The general education teachers working with these students are all expected to provide the specially designed instruction detailed in the IEP. The special education teacher is to assist with this, in some cases being the one providing it. However, the general education teacher might be expected to provide the accommodations. Ensuring this happens—and happens effectively—is a perennial issue in special education. The general education teacher might not have the flexibility or expertise to properly implement the IEP. Worse than this, the general education might view having to accommodate for special education students as an intrusion. Deliberate neglect of IEPs by general education teachers is a legitimate issue in some schools.

All of this is troubling for students and parents. The program that drives special education services can get cast aside following the meeting to create it. Crucial services can get put on hold, as items teams will get to when they get the chance. Whether by uncontrollable circumstance or cold refusal, IEPs can go neglected. Of course, team members from the school aren’t the only ones who might neglect IEPs. Students infrequently know much about their own programs, which could be a failing of other team members. Many parents don’t know enough about their children’s IEPs to be able to recognize if schools are being negligent, thus allowing schools to get away with it.

Teams disregard IEPs for many reasons, some more forgivable than others. Students run the risk of missing needed services as team members fail to implement IEPs. Schools run the risk of getting hit with compensatory education suits depending on what team members neglect and how involved the parents happen to be. All invested parties need to remember that IEPs are living programs, not just official documents. They should be regarded as user guides for how to meet student needs. Having systems for keeping IEPs on the forefront of daily instruction is crucial for teams looking to avoid the trap of neglect.

How Teams Neglect The IEP After The Meeting

When Noble Intentions Make Everything Harder For Everyone Else

Special education teachers seemed programmed to help. Most people who work in the field are driven to give of themselves to better the lives of others. The entire field could be seen as a charity effort. Some teachers subscribe more than others to this charity angle. Doing so can implode in unexpected ways.

Students with special needs often live in difficult situations. Their disabilities pose difficulties, but they frequently face additional challenges such as poverty and the host of potential problems that come with it. The wellbeing of these students concerns the caring professionals who work with them. These professionals feel compelled to help. For some, this becomes a defining mission.

When educators take on such missions, they tend to immerse themselves in their cause. The get involved in the lives of particular students because they feel they must. Rationality can become secondary. Some begin to feel they are the only layer separating needy students from abject disaster. With a few, a sainthood mindset settles in. Only a select few become insufferably self-righteous, but any who step outside the bounds of instructing students and into the realm of pro bono social work risk morally ambiguous dilemmas.

Judgments aside, these teachers-on-a-mission have an effect on the school community. Their actions establish precedents that aren’t sustainable. They might buy meals for students. They might buy clothing for them. They might step into their student’s personal lives. They might offer varying degrees of support beyond what schools have an obligation to provide. They might give and give and might feel better about themselves for giving. In the short term, their actions could very well help needy students during vulnerable times. The impact might be lasting, at least as an indication that someone cared. All of this should be commendable. More immediately, the rest of the school community might have to deal with unintended consequences.

What happens to the teachers who aren’t willing or able to give without end? Those without the resources or time to give might not be able to replicate the support that a teacher-on-a-mission has provided. Others might object to stepping over particular bounds and might refuse to adopt a student as an ongoing project. These teachers can end up looking like heels to the student and parents, even if they are doing their job well in every other capacity. What if a principal has to stop a stream of support for some reason? Now the principal looks like the villain. The student and the parents can come to rely on the help they’ve been getting. When the original teacher-on-a-mission can no longer give—either by mandate or because of some other interruption or change of heart—the student and parents might become indignant.

Beyond the issue with perception, the teacher-on-a-mission can become an enabler. This person might help some troubled student through middle school, but what happens when the student goes to high school? A relationship might benefit the student during high school, but will this teacher become a surrogate parent who can help the student through adulthood? At what point does this end? The student can come to expect a safety net that isn’t going to last. Weaning might prove to be arduous. The effort to help could stifle independence rather than foster it.

Publicity is another problem. Word gets out about these arrangements. Other students and parents might raise eyebrows over one student getting unorthodox support. Is that teacher going to invest in every needy student to a similar degree? Why not all students? Sure, every student might not be as needy. Sure, most students and parents would recognize the exceptionality and admire the efforts of the teacher-on-a-mission. Others will wonder why no one is making a similar effort to help their family during their time of need.

This isn’t to say these efforts are entirely negative. This isn’t to punish noble intentions. Good deeds shouldn’t go undone because of potential backlash. However, prudence should be applied when seeking to give needy students an extra nudge. Long-term and broad effects should be considered. One can hope that a student’s needs and outcomes are foremost in the thoughts of those teachers-on-a-mission reaching out beyond what is required of them. Noble intentions are usually pure and not about self-aggrandizement. Whether selfish or selfless, good deeds can end up backfiring for everyone else in schools. Teachers-on-a-mission should tread cautiously.

When Noble Intentions Make Everything Harder For Everyone Else

Dear Students With IEPs: Your Teachers Are Trying

So you have an IEP. You might wonder why. What is so special about you that you need special education? Maybe it’s something new for you, or maybe you’ve been in the special education system for your entire school career. Chances are you have questions about why everything is different for you. Perhaps you wonder when special education is going to start helping you read better or finally understand math. You might wonder when you’ll no longer need special education. This article probably won’t answer any of that. It will assure you of something, though. Your teachers and everyone else at your school really are trying to help you, even if what they’re doing isn’t really working.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that for whatever reason, you needed extra support. You struggled with some subject, or perhaps with all of them. School frustrated you. It may have made you want to withdraw, or maybe lash out instead. Watching others who seemed to just “get it” made you feel worse about yourself. Whether your teachers brought it up or you parents brought it up to them, you needed more help than what most of your peers were getting. This didn’t necessarily make you feel “special” in a good way.

You might know precisely why you’ve had difficulty in school. You might be well aware of some condition you have that makes learning difficult for you. Perhaps your doctor told you about this when you were younger, or he or she told your parents and they told you. Someone at school might have explained it to you. At first, you might not have understood. Maybe instead you understood, but rejected the suggestion. Acceptance of your situation might have been gradual.

Then again, perhaps no one ever explained any of this in a way that made sense. You just know you were struggling, some people evaluated you, and few big meetings later, you had an IEP. You knew this meant was you were going to get some kind of special treatment. What this special treatment would be might have been explained to you, but it might not have.

Now, you get that special treatment. You get that extra support. You might take different tests, or you might take them in a different place and with more time than your peers get. You might get printed copies of the notes for class. You might get different assignments, special equipment, or even an assistant to help you with your personal needs. You might see a special education teacher or a speech therapist a few times per week. You might even be in an entirely different class for some parts of the school day.

How you feel about all of this depends on many factors. It depends on you. Do you feel weird about exceptions being made for you? Do you feel singled out in front of your friends? It depends on how much support you get, too. Do other kids even notice what your teachers do for you? Do you think you get too little, or too much support? Importantly, it depends on whether or not you think it all helps. Does the support you receive help you keep up in your classes? Does it help you understand?

Special education might not seem worth the effort to you if you still feel like you’re lost at school. Even with the extra help, you still might struggle to “get it.” Your classes might continue to overwhelm you. If you’re in a class just for kids with IEPs, you might feel it moves too slowly. Going to see your special education teacher might feel like going to someplace safe, but you might wonder whether or not going makes any difference with your learning. Doesn’t anyone know a way to really help you?

The frustrating truth is the help you’re getting might be the most help you can get. In most schools, your teachers, counselors, therapists, paraprofessionals, and principals are indeed trying to help you. They want to help you. They just might not be able to do much more than they’re doing.

The law that allows you to get support has a weird way of limiting how much support you can receive. Your parents have to attend all those meetings and sign all that paperwork because of this law. The goal of the law is to help you stay in same the classes as your peers, but this same law urges schools to offer you the minimum support that’s necessary for you to make progress. Offering you more would be considered an interference with your right to the same education your peers get, even though these services might be the only way for you to access that education. Confusing, yes.

Take a look around at your school. If your school is having trouble paying for this and that, it might not be able to give you more help because it might not be able to afford it. Your school gets extra money to help kids with needs like yours, but it still has to buy supplies. It still has to pay teachers and assistants. When you hear about cuts to programs and staff, know that these cuts can affect the help you receive. Not all schools can afford to do special education well. You might have noticed this if you’ve attended several schools.

Even in the best schools, the people paid to help you might not know how to do any more than what they’re doing. Thanks to the law that grants you services, your special education teacher has so much paperwork to do that he or she might have difficulty finding time to help you. Having twice as much time might not matter, though. Education isn’t a clear-cut as medicine. Some learning problems don’t really have remedies. Many studies have been done and books have been written about helping kids with special needs. For all of this research, kids who struggle in school tend to continue struggling even with special education services. Schools come up with ways to help students cope, but educators don’t really know how to actually fix learning problems.

For as frustrating as school might sometimes seem, just know the professionals working with you probably are trying their best. They face limitations, but they’re doing what they can to help you despite these. They want to see you do well. This might not be comforting enough if you’re still struggling. It might not be enough to keep your parents happy, either. You shouldn’t feel like you’re making everyone have to do something difficult for your sake. It isn’t your fault. However, blaming your school might not be helping anything. The school is trying. Your teachers are trying. Work with them. Be patient and see what they can do to help. Together, you might find something that works—or at least works better than whatever you had been doing before.

Dear Students With IEPs: Your Teachers Are Trying