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What Are Special Education Teachers Made Of?

By Gonder, Sharon | Teaching Exceptional Children, May/June 1997 | Go to article overview

What Are Special Education Teachers Made Of?


Gonder, Sharon, Teaching Exceptional Children


Even before "special" laws were written, special education staffs yearly made improvements in the existing programs, but change was slow and grossly inadequate. In 1975, P.L. 94-142 was passed, with the key words "free appropriate public education" and the funds to back up this philosophy. Change was rapid; and research, teacher training, materials, and programs began to respect both the students' and the teachers' abilities to learn and to teach. With the improvement in assessment techniques, total programs could be designed to meet an individual's needs.

The examples in this article provide a glimpse into the lives of pioneers in special education-both teachers and studentsand show common threads of motivation and direction. These people recognized a need, whether perceived or from personal experience, and set out to provide the research, methods, and materials necessary to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

These pioneers also believe that participation in professional organizations is one of the best ways to promote research, provide inservice instruction, establish and monitor professional standards, and influence legislation.

Special education teachers have accepted the challenges presented to them concerning children with special needs. These teachers have been the impetus of the movement toward mainstreaming and inclusion, which has enabled many exceptional students to receive their education in a more normal setting than in the past. Through inservice, collaborative teaching, and modeling techniques, general education teachers, on the whole, are more willing to accept students who present educational challenges; and more students in general education have learned to accept children with disabilities and are willing to give them a helping hand when needed. Students with disabilities have better opportunities to engage in normal social interactions. Many parents are comforted that their children with disabilities are able to associate with their classmates without disabilities. Students with disabilities generally spend less time each day being transported to special programs outside their general attendance areas; and more teaching aides are available to provide individualized help to those students.

"It's okay, Mrs. G. We need you."

Special education teachers have always had to be adaptable and not easily thrown into a state of shock. Take, for example, the first day of school for one brand new teacher.

The bell is about to ring, but Mrs. G. is ready. She has carefully read the folders of her six students. There are many exceptionalities and all ages, but she feels that she already knows them. This is a new classroom-and there are no materials or books; but she has made some of her own activities and games, obtained some art materials from the art teacher, and borrowed some books from the librarian. Filled with as much anticipation as kids are on their first day, she goes out to meet the bus and escort her children to their new room. But wait, something is wrong-21 children got off the bus, yes-21! This resourceful teacher simply says: "Well, we'll all just have to sit on the floor and pretend we are on an Indian reservation and see how much we can learn about our language."

Does the year get any better? Her students range in age from 5 to 14; IQs range from 52 to 112; and disabilities range from "trainable" to culturally disadvantaged to neurologically impaired to severely emotionally disturbed. It is 2 days before the room is equipped with desks and chairs and 3 weeks before meager supplies arrive. Does she quit, saying this can't be done? No, these kids must have an education, and no one else seems to care.

The following year, a similar scenario occurs when, 1 week before school opens, she is asked to pilot a new program called "Learning Disabilities." This is in the late 1960s before the federal government has even arrived at a definition for this disability.

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