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I had always wanted to be a teacher. I thought my natural knack for children, combined with my own intellect, would be enough to hammer facts, skills, and information into young minds. I knew it wouldn't always be easy, but at the same time I didn't expect it to be harder than any other job that I would do.
When I enrolled in college, I was told that to be successful in the education field, you really needed to be certified in both general and special education. I had no problem with this. Even though I wasn't super passionate about solely working with children with special needs, I wasn't against it and thought I could do it. I knew it might be a little tougher than teaching in a general education classroom, but that wasn't the students fault, so I gave it a shot, and wouldn't you know, my first and second teaching job both had me placed in what is called a "Self-Contained" class.
What is that? It's a room of 12-15 students (depending on the classification) with mixed grade levels, mixed abilities and disabilities, and me with my teacher's assistant. Before I dive into the problems I experience and the lies I was told, let me say this. These problems aren't meant to label all people with disabilities, nor are they the fault of a person who has a disability. It is external sources that make this job so much harder and creates a dialogue that is just simply not true most of the time.
1. The Parents Are Their Biggest Advocate
I remember it was the spring time and I was making phone calls to my parents in regards to what type of class we were going to classify their children in next year. We had a meeting coming up to address their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a document which would describe all their needs, levels, accommodations, and modifications to their educational program. I had one student, "Sally" who I was particularly proud of because she had made many gains that year and we were considering pushing her out into more mainstreamed classes next year, rather then staying in my self-contained class for all subjects.
I called her mom to explain this to her before the IEP meeting and mom listened silently. Finally at the end of my talking, mom irritably asked me, "Well, that's nice, but why isn't Sally cured yet?"
My job isn't to cure anybody. Most of my students, if not all of them, will struggle with their disabilities for their whole lives. Of course they can still be successful and happy, but learning to manage a disability and curing it are two totally different things. It was at this point that I realized many of my classroom's parents had no idea how disabilities worked or what it meant for my children.
Sally's mom wasn't the only one who thought I was a miracle worker. Many of my parents assumed that it was solely the job of the school district to train up their child. This meant that a lot of them didn't bother taking opportunities to have discussions with their children or expose them to different things. My second job was in a small, rural community. Most of the kids had never got farther than ten miles in each direction. I did my best to read different genres of literature and show them pictures and films of different places and cultures, but it quite often wasn't enough. They needed to be taken on trips and experience things, but mom and dad couldn't be bothered to do that.
Some of my parents were great advocates, but more often than not they came from good families and didn't have disabilities themselves. Special education classrooms are cyclic. There are teachers here who have had 3 generations of a family in their classroom. If a parent has a disability, there is a good chance their kid will too, and if that parent wasn't good at managing their academic problems, how can you expect them to help their child?
"Carl's" dad sent me a strange request one day. He asked that I send home double of Carl's homework. I wasn't sure why. Carl was doing his work as well as could be expected and I was in good contact with the parents. When I questioned it nonchalantly dad revealed to me that he wanted extra sheets of the homework so that he could practice his multiplication and division facts too. I was stunned. Here was a parent who was trying to better his own education so he could help his child, but it was a complete struggle, an uphill battle. Now imagine that same situation with a parent who isn't trying to better themselves and will straight out tell their kid that school is a waste of time. You start to see that your biggest advocate can turn into the biggest pothole on the road to success.
2. Every Child is Teachable
This one isn't so much a lie as it is a half-truth. I mentioned earlier that it was a special education teacher's job to help a student manage and overcome their disability. But sometimes managing that disability means teaching them how to just not die.
IQ tests, for all their faults with proving how smart people are, can do a really good job at showing just how much a person with a disability is going to struggle. To give you a sense, average IQs circle the drain around 100, but the students in my class had IQs that ranged between 50-70. You start to enter the territory of labeling people as "mentally retarded" or "intellectually disabled."
This doesn't mean that they look any different from you or I, or that they all have quirks like in the movie Rain Man. Some of theme even exceed expectations socially, making lots of friends, being well liked, and if there aren't any motor skill impairments, doing well in gym and at sports. But ask them to do basic math or read/write a sentence and you'll see them lose it.
I had one student, "Jenny", whose mother wanted to see her daughter do more academically. Jenny had a IQ in the low 60's and had gone several years without much change or growth in her academic goals. As she began to plateau, we had to have the conversation with mom about just teaching Jenny basic skills. Her jobs in the classroom started to look less like doing math problems and more like learning how to cook basic things and do daily tasks like fold laundry. There is nothing wrong with this! But she just simply can not be taught the same curriculum as her general education peers.
This was increasingly frustrating to the parents who just wanted to have average expectations for their child and they couldn't understand why I couldn't teach their daughter this stuff. When I was in college I would have agreed with them. They made us watch all these films about struggling learners and underprivileged children and the amazing accomplishments they had done, but the truth is that's just not possible with every person. Sometimes being successful is knowing your address and looking both ways before crossing the street. The other stuff is just unteachable.
3. Everyone Can Be Accommodated
Accommodations are an IEP's way of making a student with special needs perform like everyone else. For example, if a student struggles with reading, they may get the questions read to them. Or if they process information more slowly, they may get extra time to finish a test.
There are other accommodations and some of them are really cool. With increasing technology, a lot of accommodations for kids involve computers and special programming. Some of them, such as text to speech features, can make a kid with special needs just as successful as a general education student... that is if your school can afford them.
There are ways to find these thing like tablets and computers and programming. Some of it is even free like apps on an iPad, but not all the schools in our country have the know-how or the resources to take the time to find them. Teachers can spend time writing grants to get money and petitioning their school board, but the truth is that it might be really hard to accommodate a child if the resources aren't there.
Another resource you may lack is time. I have students who get speech services, emotional counseling, physical and occupational therapy anywhere from 2-4 times in a six day cycle. It is a constant and frequent interruption in the daily learning routine, but it's necessary. When a kid has a severe speech disorder focusing on phonological awareness but he is missing your reading block 4 times in a cycle, it becomes an issue. I have been told by my administration that we can't use scheduling conflicts as an excuse (and they are right, they shouldn't be) but at the same time how are we supposed to figure it out?
Now combine this with having multiple grades and academic levels in the same room and now you need to split your time among several small groups of instruction.
I'm not saying its impossible, but I can honestly say that I am not accommodating all my students to the best of my ability every single day they are in school. Most days, yes, but not everyday and perfectly.
I have a lot to learn, but after a decade of teaching special education classes, I have also learned a lot, and what I've learned is that the system is not perfect. If you're considering becoming an educator, know that you are entering a very flawed system. The only thing that makes is better is good, hard working people and the smile on a kids face when they succeed.