Dear Future Special Education Teacher,
First, I thank you for your courage in embarking on this journey. While special education is not a field that promises riches in material terms, I believe it offers rare rewards for the soul. You’ll work with the most endearing people, and will enrich their lives with your skills and your attention.
Some of you chose this path because you have a sibling or a relative or a friend with disabilities. Many possess a generosity of spirit or a desire to make the world a better place. A number share all of these motivations, among others. But whatever the reason, you will become part of a unique guild.
Our family has met a lot of special education teachers, many of whom have taught our daughter. They’ve had different strengths and instincts, but all encouraged us with their caring and devotion.
Whether in a few months or a few years, when you begin your first job as a special education teacher, please consider the following thoughts, from one parent’s point of view.
You are our child’s learning champion. When we put him or her on the bus to start the day, the destination is your classroom. We know it is our role, above all, to advocate for our child. At the same time, we trust you to design educational experiences geared to their situations. Sometimes, this is primarily academic; in others, more social or even focused on basic living skills. And for most of our children, it involves a combination. Their IEP will provide the goals we’ve agreed together, and you’ll bring those objectives to life. It’s important in doing so that you look for the potential each student brings.
You’re also the leader of a team. In our experience and in the experiences of other parents we’ve spoken with, the special education classroom includes dedicated aides to support the teacher in care and learning. The aides we’ve met are not in this field for the money, but because they want to share their love with these wonderful children. Many of these kids will have access to other amazing professionals as well, nurses and physical and occupational and speech therapists. As in the corporate world I worked in for three decades, some of these people will work for you and others won’t, but you will be an important leader of the “team” that supports each child. And we, the parents, are another key element of that team, looking for you to give direction but knowing our own kids better than anyone else. This can be a challenging situation for a new college graduate, but take heart that it will become second-nature over time. At first, it often best just to listen.
Early in your career, before you’ve earned experience as a teacher, you’ll offer few things as important as your enthusiasm. We’ve known new special education teachers who wow us with the excitement they bring to their classrooms. We have also worked with seasoned veterans who have maintained that passion for teaching after decades in the field. Our children become energized by their teachers’ enthusiasm. We see it each afternoon when they get home.
They say patience is a virtue, and this is true for special education teachers. We know the frustration that comes with not understanding what our kids are trying to communicate, including basic needs such as hunger or pain. We’re also aware these children don’t always advance as quickly as any of us would like. Each of them has a distinctive life-path, and in times of darkness you can shine a light to help them (and our families) along.
As the parent of a beautiful daughter with multiple disabilities, I can only admire and thank you for choosing this direction. Like any career, sometimes it will feel bureaucratic or will leave you weary. But you will make a difference for these singular people, and for their families. And in the end, I believe the experience will transform your life not only for the better, but for the best.
This week, I once again have the privilege of participating on a panel of parents and professionals speaking with underclassmen in the Seton Hall special education program. This letter is intended for them, and for the many thousands of young people like them across the nation and around the world.