Special education is a field that will continue to need qualified candidates through at least the next decade. What makes the difference between an adequate and a great special educator? As people think about their career path or the possibility of changing career paths, they need to ask "Would I be a good special education teacher?" "Do I have the desires and skills to be a successful special education teacher, and actually enjoy what I do?" I hope I can help you assess your future in Special Education.
Special Educators Are Highly Intelligent
People often make the mistake of thinking that because children with disabilities are often cognitively disabled, that they don't need smart teachers. Sorry. The era of babysitting is over. The demands on special educators intellectually are greater than on those who teach a single subject. Special educators need to:
- Know the general education well enough to adapt it to the ability of their students. In situations where they are co-teaching in inclusive settings, they need to understand how to make curricular information and skills (as in math and reading) accessible to their students with disabilities.
- Assess students both formally and informally, understanding their strengths as well as their needs. You also assess and understand your students' strengths and weaknesses in terms of learning style: do they learn visually or auditorally? Do they need to move (kinetics) or are they easily distracted?
- Keep an open mind. Part of intelligence is natural curiosity. Great special educators always have their eyes open for new data driven strategies, materials and resources they can use to help their students succeed.
This does not mean that special educators may not be disabled themselves: a person with dyslexia who has successfully completed the required college program for special education understand not only what their students need to learn, but have also built a strong repertoire of strategies to overcome the problems they have with text, or math, or long term memory.
Special Educators Like Children
You need to know if you really like children if you are going to teach special education. Seems like that should be assumed, but don't. I've met people who thought they would like to teach and then found out that they did not like the messiness of children. You especially need to like boys, since boys represent 80 percent of all students with autism and more than half of children with other disabilities. Children often are dirty, they may smell bad at times, and they are not all cute. Be sure you like children in reality and not just in the abstract.
Special Educators Are Anthropologists
Temple Grandin, well known for being both autistic and an articulate interpreter of autism (Thinking in Pictures, 2006) described her dealings with the typical world as being "An Anthropologist on Mars." It's also an apt description of a great teacher of children, especially children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
An anthropologist studies the culture and communications of specific cultural groups. A great special educator also observes his or her students closely to understand them, both in order to address their needs and to use their strengths as well as their needs to design instruction.
An anthropologist does not impose his or her prejudices on the subjects or the society he or she is studying. The same is true of a great special educator. A great special educator pays attention to what motivates his or her students, and doesn't judge them when they don't conform to their expectations. Like children to be polite? Assume they have never been taught, rather than they are being rude. Children with disabilities have people judging them all day long. A superior special educator withholds judgment.
Special Educators Create Safe Places.
If you have a self-contained classroom or a resource room, you need to be sure you create a place where calm and order reign. It is not a matter of being loud enough to get their attention. It is actually counterproductive for most children with disabilities, especially students on the autism spectrum. Instead, special educators need to:
- Establish Routines: Creating structured routines is invaluable to having a quiet, orderly classroom. Routines don't restrict students, they create the framework that helps students succeed.
- Create Positive Behavior Support: A great teacher thinks ahead, and by putting positive behavior support in place, avoids all of the negatives that come with a reactive approach to behavior management.
Special Educators Manage Themselves
If you have a temper, like to have things your way, or otherwise take care of number one first, you are probably not a good candidate for teaching, let alone teaching special education children. You can be well paid and enjoy what you do in special education, but nobody promised you a rose garden.
Keeping your cool in the face of behavioral challenges or difficult parents is critical for your success. Getting along with and supervising a classroom aide also require that you know what you need to succeed. It doesn't mean that you a pushover, it means that you can separate what is really important and what is negotiable.
Other Attributes of a Successful Special Educator
- Attention to Detail: You will need to collect data, keep other records and write a lot of reports. The ability to attend to those details while maintaining instruction, is a big challenge.
- An Ability to Keep Deadlines: Keeping to deadlines is critical to avoiding due process: the legal assumption you know what you're talking about evaporates when you fail to follow Federal Law, and failure to meet timelines is one place too many special educators fail.
Run to the Nearest Exit
If you are fortunate enough to have good self awareness, and you find that some of the things above don't match your strengths, you need to pursue something that will better match your skill set and your desires.
If you find that you have these strengths, I hope you are enrolled in a special education program. We need you. We need intelligent, responsive and empathetic teachers to help students with disabilities succeed, and help all of us feel proud that we have chosen to serve children with special needs.