Common Misconceptions about Special Education

All too often when I am asked about my job, I am bombarded with a series of questions all centered around the same theme: "Just how do I do it?!"  Based on most people's reactions, you would think I was flying to the moon and back in under an hour.  I am shocked to find that it isn't just your "average Joe" facilitating this type of response...but my colleagues...other teachers (gasp!) as well.

So, this got me thinking.  What are the most common misconceptions others (especially teachers) have about "special learners" and Special Education?  I joggled my brain around and came up with the most popular five questions I am asked.  Let's sit back for a minute and really think about what it is you are asking a Special Educator each time these types of thoughts pop into your mind.  Check em' out...because truth be told...our jobs are really not much different...

One of the most popular questions I am asked is whether or not my students "appear" or "look" different from your "average" child.  Well, my response to that is, "define average?"  No, for real.  In today's day and age, can we really classify an "average" or "normal" looking person?  Have ya' ever walked down the streets of NYC?!  I cannot even recall the amount of times I've seen Batman or Elmo strolling down Broadway drinking a Starbucks.  Seriously though, not every student who has been "classified" is going to appear different.  In fact, the majority of the student population I work with have been diagnosed with some type of emotional disorder or learning disability which have in some way, impacted their academic rate of growth.  It is my job to partner with the student in order to figure out how he or she can "catch" up.

According to our U.S. national standards, all students, regardless of their ability level, are held to the same level of standard expectations.  That being said, yes, it is possible to strive toward similar goals for our students.  I think this is one of the most challenging concepts to grasp.  Many teachers will ask me, "But how can you get Sally to cite textual evidence if she can't read?"  Well, I am not saying that Sally is going to write a three page essay using explicit quotes from the text to defend her argument; however, I am saying that Sally can certainly defend her argument by using picture clues to support her reasoning.  My students can still determine the central idea of the text by selecting their answer from a multiple choice list.

Differentiation.  A buzzword so commonly used in today's society.  A concept so widely used, that most teachers do not even realize they are doing it!  When I am asked if it is "hard to differentiate" or if it's "a lot more work" to plan for...I have to chuckle to myself because...well, we all do it.  There never has, nor will there ever be a classroom full of students who all think and learn the same exact way.  That is why we make our lessons fun and engaging.  This is why the best educators use technology, movement, and student collaboration in their classrooms.  All those times a teacher has asked his or herself, "What can I do differently to make them understand?"  Or, "How can I change this lesson so that this student is getting it?"  YOU ARE DIFFERENTIATING!

Interestingly, when I hear people say, "You have to be a special person to work with special needs children", I think to myself, "He/she does not think highly enough of him/herself as an educator."  What a shame.  We all work hard.  No, you do not need to be a "special type" of person to work with students with disabilities.  Our jobs are all equally as challenging...for one reason or another.  Every good educator needs patience and the ability to nurture...and working with students who have "special needs" is just not going to change that fact.  When you put your mind to something, you can do whatever you tell yourself you can do.  Think of all those times you had that one challenging student that you didn't think you could make it one more day with...

Ahh, data collection.  Let's think about this...all teachers need to collect data...otherwise, how do you know you are being effective?  Why is my data collection more challenging than yours?  I am not saying it is pretty...and I am not saying it isn't a lot of work.  Despite the countless hours we put in collecting data, this is one of my favorite parts of the job, because it helps me determine growth.  However, the general education teacher is doing the same thing.  All those mental notes you are taking throughout the day about this child's behavior, and that student's reading fluency...that is all data collection.  Regardless of whether you are a Special Education teacher or not, no two teachers will collect data the same way.  I know some teachers who only use mental notes and jot those down on stickies, whereas others have entire binder loads full of student logs.  Isn't that the same for general education?

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So, you see my friends...we really are just one in the same.  At the end of the day, all educators are serving the same purpose, despite the population of students you serve.  I would love to hear from both general and special ed teachers.  What are some common misconceptions you have heard about the field?  Leave your comments below...and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. =)  You earned it.

Happy Teaching,
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