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At the end of last year, I had had enough of my job. After eight years as an expert Special Education teacher, I felt that I could no longer do my job and stay sane. I wanted out! I knew from previous experiences that, despite my certifications and work history, I would not easily get a position outside of Special Education within the walls of any building in that same school district. The need for people like me to work as Special Education Teachers versus the need for Language Arts or Math teachers is disproportionately high. Year after year, I watched buildings lose Special Ed teachers and, despite cutbacks, the need for teachers increased. This meant more people left their jobs than they could cut and after six years of working in that school district, I knew why because I, too, felt ready to move on. Without even having a job lined up yet, I put in my notice, finished up my IEP meetings, cleaned out my classroom, said farewell to the students I loved, gave my administrators a run-down of things they needed to know, and left.
Why, as a skilled, highly qualified teacher in a high-need position, did I choose to flee from Special Ed? It was not because I didn't love working with the kids, because, if not for them, I would've left sooner. I loved watching them grow and gain confidence throughout the years. Some of my best victories came from seeing my most challenging students succeed. No, I didn't leave because of dislike for what I did, or why I did it (the students). I didn't even leave because of the rather poor pay teachers get in North Carolina. If I had left for that reason, I would definitely not have accepted a job anywhere else in this state, as we're ranked 48th for teacher pay in the United States. That's another reality that needs an adjustment, but not the reason I decided to quit the job. I fled Special Ed for several very disturbing reasons.
Lack of funding. No, I'm not talking about the regular lack of funding that comes just from state budgetary issues. Although that's a problem too, I frequently heard that the Special Ed department just didn't have the money to cover the vast needs of our population. I knew from experience that other counties did it differently, but no one really questions why some counties receive less funding than others, or really checks into where the money goes. I'll come back to this later, as it's a theme that threads through all of the other reasons I left.
Separate, but equal. Try working as a Special Education teacher in a resource room and not getting the same access to resources that your regular ed counterparts receive. When asking for computers, you got the hand-me-down computers from previous grade levels that they stopped using because they no longer worked. These computers got "refurbished" and sent to you if you. While better than nothing, this meant any lesson plan that required use of technology would also require a wait time of 10-15 minutes to get computers booted up and logged onto. I had to plan for at least 2 computers not to work when I created my lesson plans and this left me with less than I needed. I also did not get any type of interactive whiteboard like my regular ed counterparts had, even though I taught language arts and math. This was, of course, because the money didn't exist to provide us with these things. The students noticed, and I had to tell them to feel grateful for what we had even though I knew how unfair it was. How do you solve a problem like this? By providing funding based on student need, not classroom need. Did you know that the students at the lowest level have the greatest potential for growth if given appropriate resources and education?
Scheduling Woes. The complexity of scheduling our Special Ed classes required a lot of forethought, but would also require magic since we didn't really have resources (teachers) to fill the positions. This meant that I gave up planning time (as did my special ed counterparts) in order to take care of the needs of our students. In order to provide resource classes, inclusion classes, and social skills groups, we had to do something, and I willingly sacrificed my time because I cared deeply about those children. The problem with this sacrifice was that our time was still not valued or taken into consideration when special events happened. Many times, my multi-grade-level classes got caught in this rift of confusion during early releases, assembly days, etc., because no one consulted me about how the schedule might affect my students. These students needed direction anyway, but throwing off their entire schedule meant that they didn't know what class to go to or when, even with my schedule posted on the board for them, because they would get in class and sit next to students they didn't usually sit with. As a passionate teacher, I got angry for them about these things, but could never show it. The first part of this problem doesn't come with an easy fix. Lack of funding, much of which comes from the state not respecting education, is a real barrier. But by building in protected time for teachers to get their work done, ensuring that students in all classes are taken into consideration during schedule changes, and by consulting with Special Education teachers when making schedule changes that have an impact on them and/or the students they teach, schools and districts could go a long way to ensuring success for our students.
My Children vs. Our Children. I emphasized, as an inclusion teacher, that ALL students belonged to ALL of us. The Special Ed kids were not just MINE, but part of the rest of their peer group and thus, the responsibility of everyone. I worked with teachers who felt that following the IEP was my responsibility and mine alone, even though they were given a list of accommodations and suggestions for how to provide them. These kids didn't just belong to me. They belonged to all of us. Adequate training on Special Education law for all educators (not just those who teach Special Ed) followed by some real accountability would help solve this problem.
Prior Determination. Many Special Education teachers across the entire United States get told by one member of leadership or another that they cannot write an IEP a certain way, despite the child's need, because of money. According to Special Education law, this practice is actually illegal. When we decide prior to a meeting that students either will or will not receive services, no matter what the reason, we go against the rights of the children and their parents by making a decision about an IEP before the team has assembled. Parents, who often trust us with the best interest of their children, do not know how to advocate for their children appropriately, and schools and districts get away with this practice all of the time. Furthermore, writing an IEP at annual review and then deciding to make a Special Education teacher rewrite it according to the needs of the LEA despite documented needs is not legal. Read Section 300.116 of IDEA, which states that placement decisions are made by a group of persons, which includes the parents, etc. Teachers, you do have the right to refuse to sign an IEP that you do not agree with if you feel a moral obligation to hold your ground and advocate for a child. This does not mean the decision won't take place--only that you don't think it was done in an ethical way or in a way that served the best interest of the child. School systems should never put teachers in this position, though. Although funding is scarce, rewriting an IEP according to the school's scheduling needs is not ethical and does not follow procedures put in place by the federal government.
What can we, as educators, do about all of these issues if the federal government, state government, the LEA, or the administrators do not desire or feel they have the power to fix the problem? We can make sure that our parents get educated about their rights and always provide them with their handbook, offering to explain anything they have questions about. We can refuse to sign any document or write an IEP if the decision was made without a team assembled. We can close our doors during whatever planning time we have (even if it's only 15 minutes) and refuse to let anyone interrupt us. And, perhaps more importantly, we can follow local, state, and federal elections closely and make sure we only vote for representatives that believe in education enough to provide the correct amount of funding for it. Without appropriate funding, so many people get put in terrible positions and feel the need to choose between the entire school or just a small subset of it. I understand the choice, but I don't have to like it. All of our children are important. Every single one of them. It's time that we treat them that way.