5 Brutal Reasons 75% Of Special Ed Teachers Quit
Despite the cookies, finger puppets, and summer vacations, teaching can be a thankless task. You spend your days chasing sticky, barely functioning mini-people, trying to prevent them from jumping off tables or sticking Sharpies up their noses, waiting until you can hand them back to their parents at the end of the day. And that's just what happens when you spend your days as a normal, everyday teacher. When your students have physical conditions that make it difficult for them to even sit in a chair or hold a pencil, it's a whole other level.
We spoke with an anonymous teacher for children with severe disabilities. She told us how ...
People Don't Understand Why Schools Even Bother
When you see someone caring for a child with disabilities, it's generally not considered polite to say, "But why bother?" You know, because that's kind of getting into Hitler territory. Still, our source says that most people can't wrap their heads around why her job exists at all. They tend to assume that children who are severely disabled aren't going to make any progress to speak of, so she's nothing but a glorified babysitter, right? "They have asked things like 'Why send these children to school?' or 'Why waste government money on educating these kids?' They don't realize that I am still teaching math, reading, science, social studies."
Somehow, the larger question of "Why do anything if you're going to die anyway?"
is being solely reserved for kids who already have enough issues to deal with.
She also teaches her students everyday skills that human beings need to function, like mobility, toileting, hygiene, and self-feeding -- things that will make a gigantic difference in how much care they require later. But that means people like her wind up doing the job of a parent, teacher, and rehabilitation nurse all rolled into one. Did we mention that we think the people who do this are kind of heroes?
Somebody get these people capes and raises, is what we're saying.
Some students, for example, spend a large portion of the day simply learning how to walk. "We're teaching my students to be as functionally independent as possible. They may not all walk someday, but we are giving them every opportunity to do so ... we also meet with the family and talk to them about what their specific goals and dreams are for their child, and do our best to make those happen." That means this kind of teaching isn't solely about test scores and college. "I am certain that some of my students who currently use walkers to walk are going to start taking some steps unassisted any day now. I can't wait." Yet when this teacher walks down the street next to a pro athlete, only one of them is going to get mobbed for autographs.
Then on the opposite side of the spectrum from the "Why bother?" crowd, you have a different problem ...
People Don't Want To Challenge The Kids
When you think back to your kindergarten and early elementary school years, does a lot of the curriculum now seem like nonsense busywork? You remember the dumb art projects made with dried macaroni and glitter, and figure it was all bullshit intended to keep you quiet while mom and dad were at work. Worse, you had to stare at the finished product as it remained pinned to the fridge for the next five years.
"Mom, could you please stop showing those to all my dates."
Well, when adults see students with disabilities struggling with projects like this, their first instinct is to think the same thing -- "This is all about making something fun for the hell of it." And since it's painful to watch a child fumble around with the basics, they'd better jump in and help them! That way, they get a finished project they can be proud of. Well, this is yet another way in which people badly misunderstand what's happening in these classrooms: "We will have an art project, worksheet, etc. planned, and the people will do the project completely for the kids. The child will not touch, nor make choices about, their own art project. This drives me absolutely insane ... these people seem to be of the mindset that the purpose for projects is so that the student has something cute to hang on the wall."
"A pink dog? Move over, kid."
Except that's not at all what craft time is about. "My students work on so many things in an art project: communication, choice-making, fine motor skills, sensory integration, counting, colors, shapes, writing their name, simple adding/subtracting, etc. that the end result is not the important part." Even when given specific instruction on which students should be allowed to handle certain tasks and which tasks align with certain students' Individualized Education Plans, some people (often those with less experience, like substitutes) still can't grasp the concept.
It kind of gives you a new perspective on those first years of school. Even the days when you spent half the class making some basic food dish played a key role in your development into a functional human being. This is even more true for those with disabilities. "When learning about the states of matter, we made Jell-O. We talked about solids, liquids, and gasses (steam). We worked on fine motor skills to pour ingredients. We worked on speech to talk about what we were doing ... some students worked while standing to help with their physical therapy needs. But I have had staff come in, even itinerants (speech, occupational, and physical therapists), and just do a cooking project in front of the kids while barely involving them, and talking to other adults in the classroom the whole time." Hopefully, at the end of it they didn't also stand up there and eat the finished dish, staring at the children while they slowly chewed.
"Clearly, you couldn't have enjoyed those cookies as much as us. Why are you all crying? Please stop."
You can see, though, the paradox that comes into play when it comes to society's attitudes toward this group. It's either too little empathy ("They're a drain on the system!") or misguided empathy ("You poor thing! Here, let me help you with that ..."). The hard reality is that you need to look at each kid with a disability and figure out what they need, and help them be the best they can be -- whatever that is. Note: This also works for people who don't have disabilities.
You Have To Deal With Inappropriate Behavior In Inventive Ways
Arts and crafts and mushy life goals are a wonderful part of the teaching package, but given the students' inability to fully comprehend their actions, those happy moments do take the occasional detour. Teachers like our source have to be on their toes in order to get things back on track as quickly and peacefully as possible:
"I had one student who would lay on the floor or a beanbag chair in the classroom and hump it. But we just made a rule that she couldn't lay on her belly at school. So we would distract her with something else if she started to do it, like 'We don't lay on our belly at school. Why don't you look at this cool book?'"
Have her look at it while standing, and you get another physical therapy double victory.
Handling wayward children is a delicate balancing act, as any person who has spent more than five minutes with a child can tell you. But when you have kids who lack communication skills or struggle to understand consequences, things get that much more complicated. "You also have to be careful about making a big deal out of something, and then making the students want to do it more for attention ... another example is a student I had who was swearing, yelling 'SHIT!' for attention. His articulation wasn't great, so we pretended we didn't know what he was saying and didn't acknowledge the word at all. I just realized the other day that I haven't heard him say that in months."
But really, a child screaming profanity is something that happens on a good day ...
Seizures In The Classroom Are Terrifying
Not every classroom interruption is a simple outburst of obscenity. Some of our source's students have seizures on a daily basis. So that's something she has to deal with in addition to, y'know, teaching. "I'm pretty desensitized to most of the seizures, but I've had students have seizures where Diastat (rectal Valium) needed to be given, and guess who's job that is?"
Adding "nurse" as an occupational requirement, next to teacher, therapist, and social advocate.
The rest of the class still needs to be attended to while all of this happening, so she and an assistant will usually tend to the emergency while a second assistant tries to keep everyone busy. Remember, these people do not have the luxury of falling apart. "We try not to act alarmed or scared during seizures, because when you do that, the student comes out of the seizure feeling scared and alarmed themselves. The staff in my room have our own lingo and quick words that we say calmly, and we've had other staff be present in a room for a seizure and not realize it's happening because we try to stay calm."
Keep in mind, they have to do this while at the same time watching any of the other kids' possible emergencies.
If that sounds easy to do in a situation like that, well, hopefully you never have to find out otherwise. Not that there isn't the occasion that truly strikes terror in the teachers' hearts:
"I think my scariest experience with a seizure was with a student who, according to caregivers, had a few 'episodes' at home where he stopped breathing during his sleep ... one day at school, the child pointed to his head and then started reaching back behind him to his left and pushing his chair back with his feet. I was trying to figure out what he was doing, and then I realized his eyes were locked all of the way to the left and not blinking, and his motions were rhythmic and not in his control. I grabbed him and held him on my lap on the floor, and told one of my support staff to grab the pulse oximeter because I knew that he'd been losing oxygen during these episodes. As the seizure lasted over two minutes, his pulse ox started dropping. Suddenly, his lips turned blue and his pulse ox read 56 (normal is 95-100). I opened my mouth to say 'call 9-1-1' but he immediately started coming out of it."
He was okay, fortunately. But not everyone in that classroom is going to get a happy ending ...
This Job Can Give You Emotional Trauma
Between the grueling schedule and the occasional brush with death, our source has been put through the wringer. Unfortunately, this does result in a high number of casualties. With an estimated 75 percent turnover rate within the first ten years of teaching special education, and a national shortage of teachers across the board, school districts are scrambling to fill empty slots.
"Next question: In addition to teaching, how comfortable are you with administering
emergency seizure care for no extra pay?"
It's not just that these kids require nonstop attention every second of the work day; it's that no matter how dedicated you are, sometimes you can only do so much to help:
"One aspect that is very depressing about my job is working with students who have regressive conditions, because you are fighting a losing battle against a disease, and instead of trying to teach new skills, you are fighting tooth and nail to hold onto skills the kids have. We are required to have annual goals for the students, but every year, the student is doing worse and worse, and there's nothing anyone can do. At that point, you aren't even sure you are making a difference, and it's so hard to see the student struggle to do things that they once found easy, like saying hello or feeding themselves. All you can do at that point is give the student the best experiences possible and love them to pieces, but of course admin doesn't understand, and expects to see data that shows growth, or you could be labeled an ineffective teacher because your students aren't showing growth on standardized tests."
Too bad "Felt like an actual human being, not an object of pity" doesn't appear on many tests.
And if you do manage to soldier through the pain of watching a child deteriorate, you might be unlucky enough to suffer the ultimate loss ...
"I will have the same students for at least four years, if not five or six. I definitely have a close bond with them. When you are working with kids with severe disabilities, there is always that medical component -- that fear that one day, you'll get the news that a student has died or is in the hospital. Especially on days with bad seizures, they will creep into my dreams all night long. But then there are awesome dreams where the student is doing something they can't do now, like running or talking or playing soccer. And it's nice to see them in that capacity, even if it is only a dream."
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Realities Of Life As The Parent Of An Autistic Child and 5 Shocking Realities Of Working With Disturbed Children.
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