So You Think You Can Be a Special Education Teacher, Eh?

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Did you know there are millions of children with special needs who need you? No, I mean MILLIONS. Who NEEEEEED you.

According to Special Education Advisor (, there are 6,612,752 who need your support, direction, teaching skills, and since 1978, the number of children between the ages of three and twenty-one years of age has increased by over 80%. The numbers keep increasing. Oh, and you'd better enjoy working with boys because nearly twice as many boys as girls receive services (4,421,464 to 2,191,288). .

Sounds like job security to me.

But there are a few things one should consider before jumping into the profession or before shifting gears from teaching in the general education classroom to the paperwork-heavy world of kids with diverse and unique challenges, rife with advocates, lawyers, laws, Acts, regulations, rules, and documentation requirements. Oh, and the kids with whom all these are associated…and let's not forget discrimination. Yeah, that happens a lot. You'd better be ready for that. Name-calling, too-and when children do the name-calling, it is especially saddening. For real. Adults, in this day and age, STILL call kids with special needs the ridiculous names of a thankfully by-gone era.

  • Are you ready to be a defender for the differently-abled?
  • Are you committed to maintaining high expectations because they CAN achieve, even though you know this population may achieve differently or take longer to do so?
  • Are you willing to learn to love paperwork because every sentence matters to the future school year of your student?
  • Are you ready to build the best possible connection with the families of your students, even when it means after-hours and weekends because you've become a member of their family?
  • Are you ready to have to fight for your kids to be included by their peers in a way that appears "natural" to the general education students so you can participate in building a generation of kids who embrace the differences of the special needs community instead of denigrating it?
  • Are you ready to have bodily fluids become a normal part of your day (in some…many…cases)?
  • Are you ready to argue with the Powers That Be so your class isn't the recipient of all the broken, old, gross furniture while the general ed. classes get the new and shiny stuff?
  • Are you ready to figure out 15 different ways to help a child achieve one goal, and then when all those don't work, you figure out another 15 and MAYBE one of those works?
  • Are you ready to attend Special Olympics events and see kids participate in sports without fear of being told they're slow, stupid, can't do it, shouldn't do it, or having to "ride the bench" because a parent got mad, went to the superintendent and reminded them of the rights their child has to participate? Are you ready for that very special kind of joy?
  • Are you ready for a child to say, "I love you!" 959 times a day because they know you truly care and are honestly providing help and teaching them?
  • Are you ready for a child to be hesitant to trust you because their experiences are much different than Mr. or Miss I Will Say I Love You 959 Times, and they're terrified of teachers and other kids?
  • Are you ready to have a hard time getting a sub to cover your class when you're absent and ready to unravel chaos when you return?
  • Are you ready to have systems in place?
  • Are you ready to be organized?
  • Are you ready to write plans for the week, then carry most of them forward to the next week because, well, the kids just didn't catch the concept as fully as you'd anticipated?
  • Are you ready for those beautiful "lightbulb" moments when they finally understand something on which you've been working? Yeah, those moments which make you cry tears of joy…?

Read more about an online special education degree.

If you're considering joining the ranks of Special Education Teachers, be honest with yourself when you answer these questions because to answer them dishonestly is to lie about your calling.

I get to say that. I lied to myself for years.

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Back when mullets were cool, parachute pants were the norm, and girls had feathered hair, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but Special Education? Heck, no! Several of my close friends were special education teachers. One pal, in particular, had a school year where she was out a lot for health issues and I was the only one who was willing to come to her classroom and sub AND be sure to deliver her lesson plans. I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully hand-decorated gift bags full of chocolates and a note of gratitude, but what was most fun was hanging with her paraprofessional and the kids. What a neat bunch of little ones! At any given moment of any given day, there may have been a child in the corner squawking like a pterodactyl, a child randomly opening and shutting a cabinet door as a reward for a task accomplished. Another one may have been repeating a phrase over and over again…it was really cool. This merry band of differently able kids in her posse of possibilities were all so happy; it was hard for me to understand why substitute teachers didn't want to work in her room. One day, we chatted about it and she reminded me that it takes a different type of person to WANT to be in a Special Education classroom, and clearly I needed to pursue this avenue because it was my calling.

Uh, no.

Even though I could appropriately answer the questions posed above, there was no way I was going to enter a specialized field within my field. Not. Going. To. Happen. No wild horses were going to drag me into it. No. Way.

Even knowing that 98% of school districts report shortages of Special Education staff ( and that a double-digit need for Special Ed. teachers exists (which speaks to my need for job security and an avoidance of those pesky annual Spring pink slips), I did not believe it was something for me nor that I would be of benefit to a child with special needs.

Fast forward 20 years.

I reviewed the questions posed above, this time answering them honestly, allowing the universe's "refining fire of humility" to put me where I needed to be.

Know what? None of the data matters to me. What matters is that I am finally in the position in which I was intended to be; I love my class-my very own posse of possibilities-who make me excited to go to work every day, who cause me to pay better attention to paperwork, to rules, to regulations, the laws, to Acts, to lawyers, to advocates.

If you're even kind of contemplating teaching as a profession, truly consider your best fit. Is it general ed. or is it, perhaps, Special Education? If you have what it takes, you'll know. If you're unsure, ask to shadow a Special Education Teacher for a day. I promise, you'll know when you walk in, then be committed to your answer when you walk out.