So, You're Thinking About Going Into Special Ed., eh?
This book contains true horror stories about Special Education. It discusses Special Ed. laws such as PL 94-142, IDEA, No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and why these laws have failed the children they are supposed to serve. Inside Special Education takes you behind the scenes and reveals the administrative machinations that make the speicial ed. teacher's job next to impossible. This book is not only about the bad. You will get to know children with incredible fortitude and courage. Imagine being a 10 years old boy with muscular dystrophy. Your 16 year-old brother also has MD and he's dying of the disease before your very eyes. Now, imagine being the victim of bullying by one of your classmates. The special ed. teacher turns to the principal for support, but the principal turns against the teacher and his aide for violating the rights of the bully. That is just one of many cases you will read about in this book.
In 1651 the great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, described the state of nature as “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A great many Special Ed. teachers can relate to that statement in terms of their careers.
Teaching Special Education ought to be an immensely rewarding career, but more often than not it's just the opposite. The national attrition rate among Special Ed. teachers varies because of many factors. The figures range from as low as 10% to as high as 50%, and the reasons for quitting also vary. The greatest turnover rates are among Communication Specialists (aka Speech teachers). With this group of teachers, it's the classic case of being over-worked and under-paid. Because they are in such high demand, they are often lured into the private sector with offers of a higher salary and a lower case load than what public schools are willing to give them. Special Day Class (SDC) teachers, on the other hand, almost always quit for a completely different set of reasons.
Special Day Class (SDC) teachers often quit or return to General Ed. within three years even though they typically earn 10% more than what General Ed. teachers make. Why is that? The answer to that question has little or nothing to do with money even though public school administrators bogusly blame everything on budget cuts. The truth of the matter is that some get frustrated or prematurely burnt out, but the vast majority get driven out not only because of a total lack of administrative support, but because they are also taken for granted, even abused. Unless you are extremely careful, you may find yourself in a situation where you are set up for failure. Remember this: Once you fail as a Special Ed. teacher, it's hard to get back up again and move on. Not only is your reputation shattered, but your confidence is usually completely destroyed. Don't kid yourself, you need to be prepared.
There's a huge demand for Special Education teachers, because Special Ed. is pretty much a thankless job with a higher than average turnover rate. It's kind of like joining the army. While sitting in the recruiting office, you are made to feel like you're a VIP and told what a bright future you're going to have once you sign next to the "x" on the dotted line. However, once you're in, you soon discover that you're no more than a cog in the wheel. After awhile you might even be told that you are lucky to have a job.
The inherent nature of the public school system is that it is highly bureaucratic and operates on paper. Almost everything is a compliance issue, and compliance issues are usually taken very seriously for two reasons. When a district is out of compliance, it stands to lose funding. It also gets scrutinized by the Feds; i.e., the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Program (OSEP). Not having enough fully credentialed Special Education teachers is a major compliance issue and can be a big obstacle for personnel to overcome. It's a case of supply and demand, and the former is always far greater than the latter. That's why those doing the hiring often act like army recruiters and will hire just about anyone so long as he/she is qualified on paper.
An SDC teacher may have to deal with obstreperous students and irate parents, but that's part of the job and is to be expected. Far worse than that is when the SDC teacher is stuck at a school with a bad principal. A bad principal will make it impossible for you to do your job and will blame you for everything. You may even be declared incompetent and relegated to a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program. PAR is like Special Ed. for teachers and is a most humiliating experience. You become a PAR teacher because of “unsatisfactory” evaluations by the principal. You don't have to be a bad teacher to end up in PAR. You can end up there because of a bad principal.
Some principals do not understand the complexities of children in Special Day Classes and the difficulties associated with integration. According to IDEA, Special Ed. kids must be integrated with the General Ed. population. That is mainly accomplished through mainstreaming, as well as including them in all school-wide programs. Because every child has at least one IEP meeting a year, and oftentimes two or more, principals are swamped with a deluge of extra meetings. Some principals find ways of delegating their responsibilities by using what's called an administrator designee. Others, for reasons I've never understood, insist on being at nearly every meeting which creates friction on many levels; particularly that of scheduling. IEP meetings must be scheduled at the parent's convenience, which means that the Special Ed. teacher must coordinate with many schedules that may already be fixed. For example, a typical IEP meeting may consist of the Regular Ed. teacher, the Speech teacher, the Adaptive P.E. teacher, the Occupational Therapist, the principal, and the parent. When you consider that an annual IEP meeting takes between 60 and 90 minutes, there are always going to be major conflicts between everybody's schedule.
Talk-radio host, Al Rantel, once asked his listeners to send him an email describing what it's like having a woman for a boss. I sent him an email describing what I was going through with a woman principal-- he liked it so much that he had me on as his show as a (anonymous) guest. After he read my letter over the air, the phone lines went wild. The vast majority of the callers were not only female, but the majority of them had nothing but negative things to say about their bosses. The three most common complaints were: My boss has cliques; My boss nitpicks, and My boss is moody and unreasonable. I also remember a few women say that their boss acted like a dictator. I have worked with some truly outstanding women principals over the years, so I will not generalize and say that men make better principals than women. After all, two of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, were women. David Ben-Gurion used to say that Golda Meir was “the best man in the government” because of her strong will and ability to lead. Just for the record I would also like to add that I have never agreed with Schopenhauer's infamous Essay on Women. Of the four women principals I worked with as a Special Ed. teacher, one was mediocre, one was phenomenal, and the other two were miscreants who should have been fired. In order to better understand what makes a good principal as opposed to a bad principal you must consider their training.
Principals are trained to think not like a teacher, but like an administrator. They become experts on policies and codes, not on effective teaching methods pertaining to children with special needs. Because they sit through so many IEP meetings, they become familiar with most of the jargon and Special Ed. laws. This specious level of knowledge often goes to their head, and they can become intimidating. They can almost never intimidate a Speech therapist, or a psychologist because they are specialists in highly advanced fields. They also cannot easily intimidate a Program Specialist, or the Special Ed. Director. As for the Resource teacher (RSP), principals generally leave them alone. It is the Special Day Class teacher who is most vulnerable to a bad principal's vicious attacks. With a nationwide shortage of Special Ed. teachers as great as it is and has been for decades, how can that be?
Bad principals do not consider SDC teachers to be specialists at what they do. Unlike Speech teachers, who are officially called Speech-Language Pathologists, SDC teachers are just Special Ed. teachers. Technically speaking, an SDC teachers is just as much of a specialist as a Speech teacher is, but they are rarely given the same amount of respect. Bad principals consider SDC teachers to be nothing more than well-paid babysitters, and they are always talking down to them; telling them how to do their job. Little do they realize, or would ever admit, that when it comes to telling Special Ed. teachers how to run their programs, they are completely unqualified-- just as they are equally unqualified to tell Speech teachers how to do their job.
I recently read an article written by an SDC teacher who had been so egregiously intimidated by both the principal and assistant (vice) principal that he transferred to another school. The vice principal ordered him to do things that made no sense whatsoever, and the result was complete confusion among his students. He was ultimately given an “unsatisfactory” evaluation. That same year, his school had been given an “A” rating, which made him feel pretty humiliated. One part of the article states that the lesson he was giving was deemed to be “unsatisfactory” because of the way he handled a 9th grade student after she began cursing at him and throwing things. He had sent her to the dean's office. That was considered a no-no because he failed to follow the school's protocol. According to this Special Ed. teacher, the girl who had caused all of that ruckus was an ED student; ED stands for Emotionally Disturbed. At one point, this teacher wasn't sure if he was a good teacher or a “bad” teacher. It wasn't until he had transferred to another school that he realized how unfairly he had been judged.
If you type “interview for special education teacher” into a search engine, you will get over twenty-six million results. I've read some of the more popular websites giving job interviewing tips for Special Ed. teachers and found nothing I couldn't write a book on. My advice to anyone seeking a job as an SDC teacher comes from many years of education and experience.
If you have any doubts about passing a job interview, you are not ready to teach Special Ed. Before you even apply, you need to have completed all of your coursework so that all you have left is the internship (student teaching).
You should also have at least five years experience as a General Ed. teacher, as well as a Clear Credential. I also advise that you also have some experience. Before I became a Regular Ed. teacher, I did a great deal of subbing for Special Ed. teachers. Teaching Special Ed. in summer school is also an excellent way to gain experience, if you can get it. The more experience you have, the better your resumé will look. Experience will also help you decide if teaching Special Ed. is really something you want to do.
Don't walk into the job interview as a Special Ed. teacher. You are much more than that. You are a SPECIALIST, so think and act like one.
Do most of the talking, and speak with knowledge and experience. Also, be prepared to answer questions about Common Core. If asked how you would implement it, use phrases such as according to the IEP, with modifications and accommodations, and by utilizing the resources that I've gained through teacher in-services as well as the many resources that are available on-line.
Know what you're about to get yourself into. Ask lots of questions. Visit the school sites. Talk with the teachers and office staff. Observe the students. If possible, attend a staff meeting. You wouldn't think of getting married to a person you knew little or nothing about, would you? If you end up at a school with a bad principal, you will regret it.
One of the best and most useful books I have ever read on behavior modification is the 4th edition of Building Classroom Discipline by C. M. Charles. This book focuses on eight classic models of classroom management by distinguished psychologists and behaviorists: Fritz Redl and William Wattenberg, Jacom Kounin, B. F. Skinner, Haim Ginott, Rudolf Dreikurs, Fred Jones, Lee Canter, and William Glasser. After reading this book, I knew that I could answer any question regarding classroom management and behavior modification. Of course, you can't use all eight models simultaneously, so I suggest focusing on no more than three. The three I chose were Canter's assertive approach, Skinner's shaping of human behavior, and Dreikur's model of confronting mistaken goals which is based on the concept of mutual respect. I chose these three models because in Special Ed. one model doesn't fit everybody. After all, the “I” in IEP stands for Individualized. When I started teaching, Canter's assertive approach was in vogue, however, I found that Dreikurs' model was more useful in bringing about genuine changes in a student's attitude.
Most teachers are familiar with the Newbery Medal winning book, The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman. I know teachers who have read this book to their students in order to make a point; that teachers often get punished when their students misbehave. I have worked with principals who treated certain teachers like whipping boys, myself included. And that was the motivation for writing this book.
I hope you enjoy and benefit from it.
–William Inghram (July , 2015)
This book is dedicated to Richard Miller, Jeffrey Boxer, & Samantha