Probably the most significant change that took place within the last year is that I changed schools, changed classrooms, changed students, and moved. So the past seven months or so have been spent getting to know an entirely new population of students: teaching years 1-3 were spent in an MD classroom with a variety of students—students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome, Cognitive disability, and one with a rare disorder called Smith-Magenis Syndrome. There were a few others students with varying disabilities too and the age range was vast: 2nd grade through 7th grade.
Then, on a whim, I applied to the Educational Service Center in my home county. I noticed an open position on their website and sent off a resume the next day. I was called back about a month later—at the last moment when I had already given up hope of being called—and the director conducted a pre-interview question and answer type conversation (i.e., a phone interview) and asked if I was interested in a high school position. It wasn’t my first choice, but I was interested in moving back near my family so I agreed. Then I waited…and waited…and waited. No call.
Then one day, in July 2014, I received a call from the director and was asked if I was still interested in a position with the county. Funnily enough, I was in my classroom tutoring a student when the call came because I had just told my principal a day or two before that I had given up hope and would be back next school year. She was gracious when I eventually broke the news of my impending departure.
Anyhow, I said I was still interested and I was told that an elementary position had become available and would I be available for an interview—in like two days! The rest is history. I scheduled my second interview. Passed. Then went on to a third interview with the building principal. Passed. Had a background check. Passed. Reference check. Passed. I was hired and within the next thirty days packed a house, rented another, resigned my position, rented and loaded a U-Haul, moved, and began the long process that moved me from a mixed age MD unit in a rural community to a strictly elementary (K-2) ED unit in an urban area near my hometown.
Moving from a solidly district school classroom to a county run classroom is a strange thing that required all sorts of adjustments both mentally and professionally. Although I am housed in a regular elementary school building, accountable to the building principal, and can fully participate in all building-wide activities I am not—nor are my students—officially attached to the school or the district itself. I work for the county (not the local school district), my students come from all over the county (I have eight students from five different school districts), and I see my official principal very infrequently (yet she’s always only a phone call away, so this is no criticism, and the building principal is always available to us also).
One of the great challenges I have had to master is the art of communication. Since my students are drawn from five different school districts, I have to communicate with no less than five different special education directors. I also have to communicate with several administrative people at the county level—for attendance, for classroom needs, for payroll, and much more besides. I had to learn how to negotiate scheduling issues when writing IEPs in order that all parents, therapists, district representatives, and ESC representatives can be present—people coming from all over the county. I also have to contend with five different bus schedules—no small feat when it comes to the writing of daily report cards, packing of backpacks, and actually getting children out the door.
Another significant change is that I also have three adults in my room besides myself. Thus I am also managing the work and break schedules of three other adults. Add into this mix managing the therapy schedules for eight different children who at varying times attend occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Finally, throw into this dough the specials schedules also: art, physical education, library, and music and making certain that the paraprofessionals are where they are to be.
Wow, that’s a lot to contend with now that I think about it. But let’s not stop there. Let’s also consider that I am still finishing my residency (I am a year three working on my Resident Educator Summative Assessment) and anyone from Ohio knows what a pain that is, that I am still required to go through the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (which requires 2 formal and 2 informal observations, the writing of Student Learning Objectives, and more), and that this year I had to learn a new aspect of education in Ohio (because my students are not cognitively disabled, they are not eligible for the Alternate Assessment which means they must be prepared for regular state testing by third grade): RIMPs—Reading Improvement Monitoring Plans for the wonderful 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee.
Make it better: KRA—Kindergarten Readiness Assessment; First Grade Diagnostic Assessment; Second Grade Diagnostic Assessment. Parent-Teacher conferences.
Really, this year has been an amazing, whirlwind of adventure and learning because besides everything I have just mentioned, there is the daily pressure of patiently working with students who have an emotional and/or behavioral disability, writing lesson plans (for 8 different children in three different grade levels!), managing IEPs, communicating with parents (and home districts), breakfast, lunch, behavior intervention plans, math, language arts, science, social studies, data collection, progress reports, report cards…and we have three months left in the school year.
It never ends, and there’s never enough time.
I am not writing any of this because I am looking for sympathy or because I want anyone not to go into teaching. On the contrary, I think this is reality—not just for me, but for every single special education teacher who goes to work every single day and lives on the island I like to call ‘where is my professional support team here in the school?’ I was talking about this one day with the music teacher and the physical education teacher and we all agreed: if you teach specials or special education, you often teach on an island. Not many people understand what we do every single day in the special education classroom; specials teachers come close, but only to an extent. Being a special education teacher or an intervention specialist is a lot of work, and I think it might be easy for the young teacher to get overwhelmed in those early years if they do not have the proper supporting staff from administration all the way down to classroom paraprofessionals to mentor teacher during residency.
As I said, this is reality. We have to work very hard to participate with the general education teachers—they have their own unique problems to deal with so I’m not disparaging them—so that our students can be included as often as possible in school wide events and activities. I work with a great group of teachers who have graciously allowed me to integrate some of my students into their classrooms for short periods each week. This is reality: if you are preparing to be a special education teacher, these are the things you do each day—and let’s not even get started on supplies, funding (I recently learned of the joys of www.donorschoose.org; you can contribute to my current project by visiting www.donorschoose.org/jerry.hillyer), and simple things like printer ink, paper, glue sticks, and curriculum).
And there is the ongoing, constant need to create new learning tasks for your TEACCH bins or for IEP objectives, or for Dr. Seuss week. (Thank God for Teachers Pay Teachers and Teacher’s Notebook!!)
The reality is that in a sense special education teachers have to work hard(er) to make certain our students are getting everything they deserve each day. It’s not easy work, and we do it for reasons we often cannot define or place a finger upon. We do it because we look deep into our students and we see potential that might otherwise go unnoticed or be overlooked because of behaviors. We do what we do because we want our students to have hope and because we want our students to have the confidence they so obviously lack. We do so because our students are special and not typical. We do what we do because we often think to ourselves that we might have done better ourselves if these classes had existed when we were school children and struggled with large groups, not enough attention, and lack of confidence.
This is reality. I have quite a few teacher friends in other areas of life—church, acquaintances, and elsewhere—and sometimes they say things to me like, “I am thankful for you; for what you do. I could never do it. You must be special to work with those kids.” Sometimes it is kind of embarrassing when they say it because I think, “Nah, I was trained well. Anyone can do it if they are trained well.” Then other times I think, “You know what, maybe I am good at what I do. Maybe I do it because I can, because someone else cannot.”
It’s not a bragging thing, it’s a truth thing; a reality thing. You are in the place you are right now because you can do it, because someone else cannot do it. You have the gift(s) to help your students realize their potential every single day. Surround yourself with solid people, work hard every day, and most of all love your kiddos. Not everyone can do what you do; not everyone will.