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Special Education Is Really Tough: A Roundup

If you were too busy in your holiday revelry to catch these recently-published pieces, they should bring you immediately down to earth.

The hugely popular blog Humans of New York, which captures candid snapshots and statements from people in New York (and around the world) caught up with a special education teacher on Dec. 30 for a three-part photo series. Part one, where the 10-year-veteran teacher says that she finds the work a mix of exhaustion and joy, is below:

(1/3) "I got my first classroom when I was twenty-two. I was so young at the time. I think I first went into special education imagining that I'd be hanging out with kids all day. I've been teaching for ten years now. Special education is a lot more exhausting than I imagined. It's like a performance. You need to be 'on' the entire day. You need to be strict. You need to always say the right thing and respond in just the right way. I do enjoy it, but in a different way than I imagined. Many of my students come from broken places. Some are homeless or live in foster homes. So the gains come slowly and can be difficult to track. But I get joy from seeing my students want to learn. It's very fulfilling for me if I can inspire my students to want to read a little better, or get a job, or be kinder to their classmate. It can be very tough sometimes to feel like you're making a difference. I remember during one of my first years, I was teaching a group of nonverbal students how to take turns, and everything went to hell and the students started screaming and beating their heads against the table. Then my best-behaved student turned and bit me. I thought: 'I failed. I made things worse.' But anytime I feel myself burning out, or losing patience, or not giving it my all, I pull back and do some meditation. Because if I'm not fully present and trying my hardest to make a difference, I should just quit."

A photo posted by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on


Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York, stuck with the teacher for two additional interviews and photos. (If the text from the previous link is a little too small to read easily, you can also find the interviews on Humans of New York's instagram page.) 

Another teacher, similar story: Switching to National Public Radio, journalist Lee Hale talks about his own experience as a special education teacher (he lasted a year) and then reconnects with one of his former ed-school classmates, someone who seemed to be totally on top of her game, for this Jan. 2 piece: 

Back in college it was obvious that Stephanie would be a dynamic teacher.

For starters, she understood special education from a parent's perspective. One of her sons, Alec, was in special education classes from second through ninth grade. She knows the heartache and worry that comes when a parent is told their child learns differently.

"Now as the teacher I can say, 'I know exactly how you feel, I've been there and it's going to be OK,' " Stephanie says.

She was also a teaching assistant in a special education classroom at a middle school for five years. And on top of that she was an extremely driven student.

Because of all this, my classmates and I looked up to her. She was a kind of mentor to us. She helped us see the purpose in what we were preparing to do.

"I was really clear on why I was there," Stephanie remembers.

She pauses. "I wish that was more clear now."

The teacher goes on to talk about the paperwork burden that seems to take up all of her free time. She feels that she's making a difference in her students' lives, and yet she often thinks about leaving. 

A parent's perspective on the paperwork: But is all this documentation really worth much? Journalist Tracy Thompson, writing for The Atlantic about her experiences with a daughter who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and an auditory processing disorder, calls the whole process, bluntly, "hell."

What often takes the place of meaningful compliance is meticulous attention to paperwork requirements (Sign this! Here, we have to give you this list of Rehabilitative Services!)—and/or a kind of magical thinking in which simply describing a program becomes the same as actually delivering services.

Thompson's daughter is now in a private school that costs nearly $33,000 a year, and, judging by her comment about plundering her retirement savings for it, the school district is not footing the bill.

In a world that made sense, students like my daughter would be seen for what they are: canaries in the coal mine that public education has become. Their struggles highlight the dismal state of teacher training in this country, the urgent need not for more tests but more innovative teaching methods, and the dogged persistence of such educational "theories" that learning disabilities equal low intellect, or that it is possible to discipline a child into learning differently.

None of these pieces or the complaints that they raise are new to anyone in special education. But they mark a sobering start to the new year. 


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