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My Job as a Special Education Teacher Is Like Working at the ER

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I am a special education teacher. Sometimes people make assumptions about special education teachers based on experiences or things they simply have heard. Some assumptions are true and some are not. I wish people understood the truth about my job.

I wish people understood I am a real teacher. I have an equal amount of responsibility as a regular education teacher (along with having much more paperwork), despite having smaller groups of children at a time.

I liken special education to a hospital emergency room. When parents have done all they know to do at home, and the regular education teachers have tried all the strategies they know, the child then has testing to see if they qualify as having a disability. Once they qualify for special education services, an IEP is developed. They are then in my “ER” to get intensive interventions.


It is my job to help them somehow catch-up to their peers in order to make enough progress so they will have as many skills as possible for when they go on to middle school and high school. I work hard to help them meet their goals that often take more time to achieve. Time to learn, time to process, more repetitions to learn. More time than one school year. Therefore, I tutor them after school as well.

The best ER physicians work tirelessly to save patients. Some patients do not make it. I work tirelessly, finding new ways to help my students learn when the traditional ways will not work for them. However, there are students who, no matter what I do, continue to struggle and remain behind their peers. It breaks my heart. It keeps me up at night. It drives me to my knees in prayer, pleading. Sometimes all my effort does not seem enough.

Do I give up on these kids? Never! I find ways to let them shine! I help them show off their strengths. I challenge them. Somedays they do not like me because I will not settle for letting them only do the easy things. I push them to try something harder, to give more effort, to reach a little higher. I give them the priceless gift of hope and show them I believe in them. Because even though they may not catch up with peers in a year’s time, they can still learn. Every child can learn. Progress is progress, no matter how much or how long it takes.

I wish people would not give up on students in special education. I wish classroom teachers would not have the attitude, “Well, they’re your kids now” once they have an IEP. I wish they would willingly continue to put interventions in place to help them while they are in the regular education classroom. These kids are all our kids. If we work together as a team — regular education teacher, special education teacher, therapists and parents — the child has a much greater chance of making progress.

Special education is not a place. No one stays in the emergency room for days on end. Special education is an intervention. Sure, some students will need special services their entire school career. My son with autism did. Others will only need them for a season. My daughter exited special education in third grade. Nevertheless, all children need to know they are valuable and they have people who believe in them and in their ability to grow and move forward.

That is my job.

I am a special education teacher.

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Thinkstock image by BananaStock

Originally published: July 24, 2017
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