When people discover I am a special-education teacher, I hear two reactions: “Oh bless your heart - I couldn’t do what you do,” and “How do you stand all that paperwork?” I smile and say thank you, but the “bless your heart” reaction is concerning.
It’s as if people pity me for working with students with disabilities. I cannot imagine doing anything else.
The term “special education” encompasses many different disabilities, including physical, cognitive, and behavioral/emotional. Wake County Public Schools serves approximately 20,000 special education students in 169 schools. That’s about 13 percent of our student population. Their disabilities range from significant intellectual disabilities to Attention Deficit Disorder and Aspergers Syndrome.
At Broughton High School, we serve 362 special-education students; that’s about 17 percent of our school’s population.
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These students are served through Individual Education Plans or IEPs. The IEP is the legal document that identifies student goals and the services students will receive. Services cover everything from speech therapy to time with a special-education teacher. IEPs use the word accommodations to identify specific classroom or testing modifications, such as additional time or having a test read aloud.
All Wake County Public School teachers work every day to ensure special education students receive their accommodations so that all students have opportunities to become independent learners and experience academic success. In a high-school setting, that can mean teachers are responsible for as many as 72 IEPs in addition to the unique learning needs of their remaining 75 to 100 students.
I have been teaching students with disabilities for 16 years. I began and most likely will end my career at Broughton, and I, like many of my colleagues, love my job!
Yes, I am a teacher who is completely underpaid and existing in the chaotic state of our public education system, but working with students with disabilities is rewarding, and each day at Broughton reminds me why special education is an integral component of our schools.
Special education realities
Special-education students are held to the same standards as their general education peers in the realm of testing, where they complete End-of-Grade, End-of-Course and ACT assessments just like everyone else.
In Wake County, 13 percent demonstrated proficiency, or passed, the Math I End-of-Course test, 24 percent in biology and 22 percent in English II. This information is alarming and must be addressed.
If you look at any of the End-of Course scores, it will look like we are failing students with disabilities miserably. We are not. Special-education students and their families simply need a voice.
Our students need to be provided with appropriate supplemental materials for instruction so that we can meet students where they are. At the high-school level, I encounter students who read on a second or third-grade level, but I do not have the resources — material or human — to bring these students up to grade level.
High-quality instruction for all helps solve these problems. For students with disabilities, high-quality instruction might be presented using different materials and mediums, such as enlarged print for students who are visually impaired or adapted texts for students who are struggling readers. Teachers must understand how a student learns and the educational implications his disability can have on his academic success.
Modifications are also necessary for students, but a student with a disability should never be compromised because of his specific needs. Every day, our teachers modify assessments, select a variety of different texts, offer before and after school assistance, and provide valuable feedback on students strengths and weaknesses. This work allows students with disabilities to be educated among their peers, to take Advanced Placement classes, and to have the opportunity to learn and master the same material.
Why teach special education?
One of the amazing aspects of being in special education is the bond we form with our students and parents. Sending any student off to high school is a nerve-racking experience, but it is much more difficult for a parent whose child may not travel the typical high-school path.
It is important that these parents have a voice in education, someone who understands their children and who is willing to be their advocate, coach, and support system.
As special education teachers, we cry along with the parents at the hardships the students experience, and we also celebrate in their victories. Whether their triumphs are getting into college, finding a job, making a friend, or attending a dance held at school, we are with them.
So I ask, the next time you meet a special-education teacher, don't bless our heart; instead, ask her to tell you about what great things her students are achieving, inside and outside the classroom.