Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Special Education Teachers - We Aren't Saints!

If you're a special education teacher, I bet you'd be a millionaire if you were paid for every time someone called you a saint, or a hero, or a thousand other well-meaning compliments.

Let me set the scene: You're at a wedding. You start mingling with a few people during cocktail hour, and eventually someone asks, "What do you do for a living?" You start out simple. "I'm a teacher." Of course they get a big smile and say, "Oh that's so nice. What grade?" Then it gets complicated. "Well, I teach special education so I have kindergartners through 3rd graders." Then the obsessive compliments come into play. "Oh my, special education, that's AMAZING. You must be so, so patient. So what types of children are they?" Here we go. "Well, I teach at a residential treatment center for children who are wards of the state and have behavior disorders." I hate and love this part. A mix of "WHAT??! WHY??!!" and "That is GOD'S WORK. YOU ARE A HERO. HERE IS MY WALLET." (Not really, but that is something I could get behind.)

I know this doesn't sound bad. Someone is praising you for your hard work. But I know I don't just speak for myself when I say that somehow these compliments, although well meaning, don't sit well. There are a million reasons us sped teachers feel funny about these praises, and if you are a special educator yourself, you already know what I mean. If you're not, I could see how this might be strange. 

The thing about being a special education teacher is that as challenging and utterly exhausting as it can be, it is beyond fulfilling. I know that I don't get paid "what I should", but I don't even care anymore (IF BETSY DEVOS IS READING THIS, I WILL STILL TAKE A LARGE RAISE. THANKS.). Our students successes, the really big ones and the super tiny meaningful ones, are what keep us coming every day. Their resiliency and perseverance is like a really incredible motivational speech multiple times per day. They are hysterical, sometimes even on purpose. 

So how do you kindly respond to these well meaning people at cocktail hour? I asked a few of my special education teacher friends what their "go-to" responses are.

1.) "I'm just lucky to work with my littles. They are the best people I know, and I'm the blessed one to get the opportunity to work with them." -- Nancy, The Puzzle Classroom 

2.) "It's definitely not a job for everyone, and sitting in a cubicle is not for me. I love that every day is so different, and not only do I get the chance to make a difference in my student's lives, but their families, too!" -- Fiona, Adulting Made Easy

3.) "When you have the calling to do something "out of the box" for your job, you know you're supposed to do it. For me, it was teaching tough kids. It's the only career that feels right." -- Sophie

4.) "I truly love what I do and care for my kids. This job isn't for everyone, but I love making a connection with them! They let me into their world and that's where all the learning happens! They see the world so differently and they are extremely smart in so many different ways. We teach each other in more ways than you can imagine and I enjoy having this privilege!" -- Michelle, Miss Hey Miss

5.) "I love celebrating the small milestones and that helping students expand their communication skills is very inspiring." -- Rose, ABA Speech

6.) "My career choice is truly one of the most selfish choices I've ever made. Kids with special needs loved me and knew the type of person I was before I did. My students have taught me just as much as I have ever taught them. I will never forget some of the moments that students have shown me my own character, determination, and empathy. Teaching kids with special needs is not for everyone but that doesn't make me better in any way just because it is for me." -- Kelsey, Tools for Busy Hands

7.) "My job is more about the positives than the challenges." -- Jenn

8.) "This is just part of why I was put on this planet- to do this job! It is my passion and I wouldn't change it." -- Olivia, Spectacular in Special Ed

9.) "Thank you."-- Lisa

10.) "I learn more and get more out of my students every day than they do from me. I'm very lucky to be apart of something that is so special and life giving to me. That's why I feel really lucky, because I know not everyone has that with their career." -- Yours Truly

What do you think? What are your "go-to" responses?



  1. 👍💚💚💚 love these response! Thanks for sharing. :) it's amazing to see how our kids can make such an impact!

  2. General ed teachers often make comments to me and I always say, "I couldn't do your job. Just like our kiddos we were all made differently with our own purposes and gifts. I'm glad I have mine and you have yours."

  3. I began as a general education teacher for five years. During my second year I had the opportunity to be the lead teacher to Students in Life Skills. I loved every moment. It was the highlight to my summer. The district called me back every summer to be the lead teacher. What I learned was how much my students did accomplish. I would see them grow each year. I moved away for six years and then moved back and taught Life Skills again. Every summer the former Life Skills students have a picnic get together. I got to see my former students who had their own apartments, working, and going to college. It was amazing to see how far they came. It's because of them that I went back and got my special education endorsement and have been teaching special education for nine years.