Speaking from Experience: Special Education Teacher Retention

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This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

I’m something of an oddity. Ask anyone – especially my teenaged students. But as much of an oddity as I am on a personal level, I’m even more so on a professional one. I’ve been a classroom special education teacher for over 20 years. According to several sources I’ve read (here’s one), special education teachers leave the field at a rate nearly twice that of general education teachers, with a large number moving from special education to general education. Those figures are pretty astounding considering that almost half of all teachers leave the field of teaching within the first five years.Read More »

Speaking from Experience: High Expectations ≠ Same Expectations

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This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

I have often heard that we special educators don’t set high enough expectations, which is why students with learning disabilities and other special needs have lower achievement levels than their peers. The assumption is that all students come to us the generally the same and that we are screwing them up – or in more palatable terms, that “the system is failing these students.”

The reasoning may sound logical to some. These students aren’t achieving as high as their peers because no one has previously expected them to do so. Although variation is a certainty in all other areas of the physical world, from rocks to plants to animals, we are to believe that there are no significant individual differences between student abilities except those that we teachers create through neglect and low expectation.Read More »

Speaking from Experience: The Importance of Relationships


Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMThis post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

As the coordinator of an alternative special education graduation program in a large rural high school, I serve the students who are at highest risk for dropping out of school or leaving school without meeting Tennessee’s diploma requirements. My experience supports the research evidence, for example here and here, that one of the most important components of successful drop-out prevention is cultivating relationships with students.

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Speaking from Experience: Top-Down Initiatives

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This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.

During my 20+ years of teaching, I have been required to implement more initiatives that I can count. Most of these have been based on research that has shown that “good schools do ___” or “good teachers do ___” or “high achieving students do ___”. In short, they are based on the “what works” mentality. Researchers gather evidence that correlate a certain set of actions with a certain set of positive school qualities. Then, a school system, state, or even entire country decides to implement this action in a broad stroke. Many of these may have begun as good ideas, but eventually almost all top-down initiatives have had limited success because of poor implementation.Read More »

Speaking from Experience: A Series

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PMData-driven decision making has been all the rage in education for the past few decades, but, as Larry Cuban points out here, there is little evidence that this trend has led to any better outcomes for American schools than teacher decision making. While documentaries, media attacks, and political rants continue to assert that we teachers are incompetent and apathetic, and that years of working in classrooms makes us even more so, we now have growing evidence that, in fact, teachers with classroom experience do make a difference for our students.

Lately I’ve been reading more writers who even suggest that experienced teachers might know more about what helps students learn than multi-billionaire businessmen like Bill Gates and the Koch brothers, or basketball players like Arne Duncan. We teachers may have some ideas about why the panels of “experts” who write standards and tests, lead conferences, and design evidence-based curricula haven’t been able to make lasting and meaningful improvements in our schools. Maybe we should begin to listen to experienced teachers.

But, they lament, it’s hard to find classroom teachers doing more than complaining, making excuses, or following self-interest. There are some writers, like David Greene, who share their many years of classroom experience with us. But no one of us can speak for all teachers, since we are all different people working in different settings, with different students, and teaching different content. We need to hear from a broad spectrum of teachers.

So, this begins a series from my perspective as a classroom special education teacher. I’ve taught in public school classrooms for 18 years now, with an additional three years teaching in a private non-profit classroom and few others as a classroom consultant, among other education-related jobs. I’ve seen trends come and go. I’ve seen successes and failures. I’ve seen the repackaging of the same and the promotion of the ridiculous.  I constantly read about education, think about solutions, try out new possibilities in my classroom, and pick and choose the successful pieces to add to my teaching repertoire. And despite all this, I still face each day feeling that I have so much more to learn if I am ever to do my job effectively.

In this series, I will share observations about the general trends I’ve seen in education over the years. It will be my narrow view from where I have been teaching.  I won’t share “what works”, but rather, what has worked for me at which times, with which students, and in which settings, and why I think some other efforts may not have worked so well.