What it's Really Like to be a Special Education Teacher

Two Wednesdays ago I completed a Masters Degree in Special Education, and that Thursday I finished my routine paperwork for the year! 
Although I took a roundabout route to get there, I feel so called, passionate, and challenged in my career. At this mountaintop moment I thought I would share some of my observations over the past three years of what it's really like to be a Special Education (Sped) teacher.

1. You become part Therapist/Life Coach. I've heard details about broken families, breakups, friend drama, dying pets, decisions about prom dresses, you name it. I've given daily motivation talks to try to change negative mindsets, and waited for a student to stop sobbing so they could talk. I've taught social skills, hygiene practices, and explained who that guy FICA is that's stealing half their paycheck. Sometimes kids just need to be heard, and if you show them you'll listen, they know they are valued. Unfortunately, for some students you may be the only positive adult in their life.

2. You are constantly solving a puzzle. Sometimes you have to find a way to compare Algebra to Star Wars in order for that kid to get it. There's times I wake up in the morning and my brain is already at work figuring out how to help a student with memory deficits prepare for a test. There's also the piece of how to meet each student's individual instructional needs, while helping them pass their classes, and having something to enter into your own grade book all during one 60 minute period!

3. By serving the underdog you become the underdog. I have been very privileged in my life; there has been little I've had to fight for. There is little doubt that in the school system sped is the underdog. There is little funding, curriculum, and representation of sped within the system. As a sped teacher you have to constantly fight to be heard in order for your students to be heard.

4. You discover you have a mama bear (or papa bear) mode. I am a non-confrontational person and there is not a lot I get fired up about. Now that I work with students with special needs, I get fired up REAL quick if someone is not giving students the help they need. I argue with coworkers and send demanding emails. I may appear calm in a meeting, but my heart is pounding as I fight for justice and equity for my students.

5. You constantly wonder if you are doing enough. I wonder if the instruction I've provided is actually useful for my students, and if I've done enough to prepare that kid for that test. I wonder if I've done my paperwork to meet state standards. I wonder if I've communicated with parents enough. Most of all I wonder if I'm doing enough to help each student feel supported, seen, and valued in my classroom.

5. You get to see amazing communities develop. One of my favorite parts is seeing my students support one another. They work together during class time and encourage one another through finals. At one point I had several senior boys who, without me telling them to, mentored freshmen boys who were similar to them. An older student who slacked freshmen year and was behind in credits would see his freshmen in the hall, wave to him and say "you've got this. Do the hard work now, it's worth it". It was amazing and such an honor to see.

6. You become a little baffled by the non-sped world.
 On the rare occasion I have an interaction with an over-achieving kid, I have no idea what to say to them, even though I was one in my day. Suddenly a 3.0 seems like an insanely high standard to get into college. A classroom with more than 20 students in it seems extremely crowded. When I see AP teachers grading 8-page essays, I feel like I live in a different world.

7. You do mountains of paperwork. For real, so much paperwork. And you have to constantly keep up on changing protocols and standards. I have to consistently remind myself that I do it for the kids!

8. You don't strongly identify with the title "teacher", hence the life coaching and paperwork. Teaching is absolutely an important part of the job, but sometimes it feels more like social work.

9. You are constantly inspired by your students. Honestly, there are moments I think high schoolers are the worst people in the world. And then one inspires me with their kindness, their thoughtfulness, their openness to new ideas. Sped kids have so many barriers to overcome, and for them coming to school everyday presents way more challenges than I ever faced. The determination to succeed, to learn, to grind until they get it, is truly awesome.

10. You make a difference. On days that I doubt my value and ability as a sped teacher, my students remind me that I'm making a difference. Whether it's that something clicked in Government because of a strategy I taught them, or that they had someone to tell a story because I would listen, or a small way of showing appreciation like sharing a smile or their candy or the elusive 'thank you', or that I'm the first person they tell when they pass a test, I'm reminded again and again that what I do makes an impact on my students' lives.

11. You would do anything for your kids. I know what it's like to not be able to sleep at night because I'm praying for one of my students who got arrested, and to give them the talk when they return to school that their parents should have given them. I know what it's like to give up my one 30 minute break in order to play cards with a lonely kid. I know what it's like to harangue the counselor and teachers with options for my student to obtain credits to graduate on time, and I know what it's like to see them walk across the stage in success!

It is Teacher Appreciation Week this week, here's a huge shout out to all the teachers out there doing anything and everything for their kids.


  1. Oh Kelsey, this post really got me. My husband is also a special education teacher, and you all have such an incredibly challenging yet rewarding job. The lack of resources in the sped world really fires me up, too! These kids deserve more, and their teachers (and EAs) deserve more, too. Thank you for sharing this for all sorts of people who may not have ever gotten a glimpse into special education.

  2. I love this post so much, Kelsey. There's so much truth and love and heart in your words; you can tell how much you love it, what it means to you, and I can only imagine you are such an incredible giver to the children and families whose lives you touch each day. Thank you!!

  3. Teachers have such a special place in all our lives! My nana was also a special education teacher and she too had so much love for her career.


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