Image via Wikipedia
How many hats or duties, do Special Educators wear or have during the course of school year, week or day? Personally I think we have too many to do our main responsibilities particularly well. At least not without putting in a ridiculous number of hours beyond what is normally expected of most teachers.
It seems that this is not understood by many politicians or administrators, because they continue to add responsibilities to our already full plate without removing any. Typically, many of Special Educators have between 15-30 students on our caseload, have a full teaching schedule (usually English Language Arts or Math), and are supposed to help our students with Science, Social Studies or any other subject the student is having difficulty with.
Then we are expected to put out fires (student behavioral issues or parental generated questions) that come up, advise administrators and teachers about Special Education laws/regulations, liaison between parents and the school and all the other responsibilities that have been added since Special Education came into being.
Teacher – While some Special Educators do not teach a particular subject, many of us do (does HQT ring a bell?), we have to be prepared to teach our students any subject that they need help with. Being able to teach a wide variety of subjects usually at remedial and varying grade levels has just become a part of our job expectation.
When you add in that our instruction is required by law to be Scientifically Based (which is a whole different post), how are Special Educators expected to meet the “letter of the law” and be in compliance? While delivering differentiated instruction in a variety of subjects at the same time in the same classroom – usually called the Resource Room.
Oh yeah, then most of our students are required to take the same standardized tests as their grade level peers (with accommodations and modifications) which doesn’t cause any issues or problems for the school or the student?
When Special Educators do teach a particular subject, we are often do not have and are not provided the same training opportunities, included in Department Content Area meetings to improve our abilities in that subject area. I have heard too often – “you are in Special Ed, you aren’t part of our department”, “you don’t need to be here”.
But we are still required to prepare Lesson Plans, Weekly Plans, maintain Grades and do all the other things that those other content area teachers are required to do for their classes. We try to “get” leadership to allow us to be included in the content area we are responsible for, but it seems that we get “forgotten” for whatever the reason by the Department Chair.
Which makes it difficult to align our mandated Scientifically based curriculum with the regular education curriculum which we are also supposed to follow along with, when we are often not aware of what is going on in those Departments.
Often it seems as though Special Educators are not respected as “real” teachers by content area teachers or administration. We often hear that we get the “other” students that no one wants in their classroom, that our students can’t learn, we have to teach those students fundamental skills that may be well below grade level, that the level of rigor that we teach in our classroom is not the same rigor that other teachers may have in their classroom, our students are the reason that the school is failing, that we don’t have the background to teach a subject the way it should be (in other words we are teaching subjects differently than other teachers might) and so many other less than complimentary stereotypes or negative stereotypes.
This kind of thinking and attitudes toward Special Educators just gets tiresome to me. Special Educators are certified teachers, who typically do the best job that they can, with the resources we are provided with. Sometimes we even surprise everyone and have more than a few our students who do well academically or those that improve their skills socially, even if we don’t always teach by the “book” or use an “approved” scientific teaching method. At times part of what our students needs is an adult who gives a damn about them and doesn’t give up on them when something goes wrong.
Paralegal – I think that this is our main job in today’s world, doing the paperwork that is associated with Special Education, not teaching our students. The focus is on completing CYA paperwork has become burdensome to the educational process. Yes I know that according to the law Procedural Safeguards must be completed correctly, but the number of meetings, Advance Written Notices, participating as the recorder in Pupil Evaluation Teams (PETs), Written Notices (replaced PET minutes in Maine), Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and all the other paperwork that we get to do seems to be a lot of “do work”, not necessary work – but then again anything that could go to Hearing or Court has to be completed “just so.”
I think the longer I am in Education, the more I dislike this part of my job (the paperwork) as a Special Educator and when I leave Special Education this will be one of the reasons that I do. I am usually pretty good at the paperwork end (I just can’t proofread my own work sometimes), but I just don’t like the amount of time it all takes to properly prepare this paperwork correctly to meet the legal requirements placed upon schools and the Special Education staff. We have to know the Special Education
Regulations/Laws for our State and it helps an awful lot to know IDEA, Section 504 and some of the vocational laws in effect that affect our students and their legal standing in our schools, just to ensure we are not missing anything.
One of the biggest issues that I have with being a Special Education Paralegal is that formal training in become or being one is limited. Initially it is usually one 3 credit undergraduate class and after that training on changes to these laws and forms are few and far between, and usually well after the fact. It seems to me that something as important as this part of our job is left to informal training methods just isn’t the right way to do things, especially when so much of what we do in Special Education may be contentious and may be argued in mediation or court.
Sometimes I think that general education staff and administrators forget that Special Education is covered by laws and regulations, and are not being made up by the Special Educator just to make their lives miserable.
Counselor – I know that we are not licensed counselors, but it seems as though we sure do provide an awful lot of common sense advice to students, parents, teachers and sometimes administrators for their personal and professional issues. This is just a part of the job, sometimes it helps to keep our students in school and this seems to become an important part of what we do – honest and sometimes blunt analysis of what is going on around us. Often what we say is not appreciated at the time we say it, but sometimes it needs to be said.
Behavior Technician – Many times Special Education students have the reputation of having more behavior issues than other students and usually this is true. But I have noticed that many Resource Rooms or whatever you call them have fewer behavior issues than in many regular education classrooms – I wonder why that is?
I do have a couple of theories, but that is another post. Special Educators are called on when “their” student’s behaviors escalate to unacceptable levels and the school doesn’t choose or want to use the “regular” school discipline. We have to use our knowledge of the student or our interpersonal skills to calm a student down enough to stay in school and then get them ready to go back into the general education setting or simply stay in school in an alternative setting. Sometimes putting out these “little” problems take up a great deal of our day.
Advocate/Negotiator – This is one of the hardest parts of the job. Yes, we are part of the school staff and the school pays our salary, we share the teacher’s lounge with other teachers, but we are also a Special Education student’s daily advocate within the school, who is tasked with ensuring that their rights are being protected. This can
often sometimes put Special Educators in difficult situations when they point out to the other educators or administrators that they may not be following the student’s IEP – which is a legal agreement between the school and student’s parents.
Special Educators walk a tightrope to ensure that the student’s rights are protected and that the IEP is properly implemented, while at the same time ensuring that the school’s rights/perogatives are also protected and maintaining collegial relationships with our colleagues.
How a special educator performs this duty as a student’s advocate will determine their effectiveness as a Special Educator. This is an area where we tread lightly, but hopefully stand firmly. This part of my job is probably the most stressful and the part that will most likely eventually lead me out of Special Education. You are always in the middle with both sides (parents or school staff) blaming you for what is going wrong. You are part of a team, but an outsider, because you have to (by law) enforce or put teachers on notice regarding issue that some consider unpopular or not their problem.
Disability Resource Coordinator – Special Education students need accommodations, modifications and assistive technology and taught how to use these strategies, in order to be successful in the general education classroom. Special Educators need to be aware of the best ways to accomplish these needs for each individual student, then communicate how to implement them into the classroom to those teachers and teach the student how to best utilize them to their benefit. It sounds easy, but it is not and like the Advocate hat, this one can run into some difficulties when attempting put what the student needs to be successful in the classroom from either the student or the classroom teacher, especially when some teachers disagree with the PET team, chooses not to participate in the PET process or ignore the IEP.
What is the reality – I believe that all of these “jobs” that Special Educators have on their plate, make it difficult at best and at times impossible for them to do all of them at the high level our employers want or society demands, which causes its own stressors. Most of us attempt to do everything well, but with so many responsibilities versus the time available, often we offset quality of work for quantity and then when we get picked apart by a lawyer, because our paperwork is not just so, our lesson plans are not up to the same quality as the general education teacher or we get angry phone calls and emails from parents about what is or is not going on at school for their student. All of which leads to frustrations on everybody’s part.
It just seems that the politicians and administrators keep adding more and more responsibilities to the Special Educator’s job description, but do not take anything off that position description. Leadership seldom checks to see if the numerous responsibilities they have assigned their Special Educators can be reasonably accomplished in the time and with the training that they are providing.
Part of being a good leader is to ensure that people are given the proper tools, training and time to complete their tasks…I believe that in many instances leadership has forgotten to look at what they have been putting on the hat rack or if they do they don’t want to see what is there, because they would have to do something about it. It is often easier to get a new body in a position and use them up, than it is to change how things are done.
With all the different hats that we wear, sometimes I do wonder whether it is worth being a Special Educator or not. I love teaching kids (especially the ones that most teachers don’t like to teach) but sometimes the rest of those hats and responsibilities get pretty darn onerous. Finding a balance between the number of hours that we give freely to special education and having a home life when school is in session is becoming more and more difficult. Many don’t or can’t find that balance and look to find different teaching opportunities or leave education altogether.
What are the answers? I am not sure, but it has to do with real education reform, not just the Testing and Standards reform mandates that are on the table today. Special Education students usually don’t or can’t meet many of these reforms and then the schools and soon Special Education teachers will be penalized for their student’s lack of progress – which may be beyond their ability to control. Maybe I am naive, but testing a student at an 8th grade or high school level, when it is acknowledged they are at a 3rd or 4th grade level, is not an effective use of the school’s, teacher’s or student’s resources, time or energy.
I do have to ask is the present system of FAPE, IDEA or Section 504 as interpreted by the Courts and State Regulations, the appropriate educational system for our Special Education students? There are more questions than there are answers to me at this time and there are no easy answers. But in my opinion the present system is often not working for the student, their parents, teachers or the school when it comes to educating Special Education students..
With all the above negativity, why do I stay a Special Educator? One reason and one reason only – I love teaching these kids, otherwise I wouldn’t put up with all the other things I have written about.
What do you think, am I being too negative or not? Have I overlooked any of the other duties that Special Educators have to do?
“There is no try, only do.” – Yoda