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Teaching Special Education

Teaching Special Education

What is special education? Special education is a legal definition for programs that provide greater support for certain students. “Special education” does not refer to a specific location or fixed concept but rather includes a broad range of student services from a smaller, more individualized learning environment, to assistive technology, to a modified curriculum that capitalizes on a student’s particular strengths. Under the law in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all students are provided services that support their needs.

Every teacher in the public education system works with children with disabilities and therefore needs a basic understanding of the special education system. “Special education teachers” work largely or exclusively with students who qualify for services. Teaching Fellows who teach in a special education setting with students who have mild-to-moderate disabilities will work with students who have difficulty in areas such as reading, math, writing, or communication. Fellows who express interest may also work in classrooms with students who have moderate-to-severe needs, focusing on the development of their students' academic, social, vocational, and independent living skills.

Visit Colorado’s Exceptional Student Leadership Unit website for more information on special education.

For more information on the history of special education and the movement to provide all children with a free and appropriate education (FAPE), visit the website for the Council for Exceptional Children.

For resources for teachers, parents, and students involved in the system, visit the website for Learning Disabilities (LD) Online.

As a special education teacher, you will have the opportunity to be both advocate and teacher.
Special education is designed around the concept of individualized curriculum. Classes are smaller, and the teacher has the opportunity to get to know students and their families at a much more personal level. The teacher’s job is to meet educational goals that have been tailored to the needs of a particular student and write new goals each year as (s)he meets with a team that assesses the child’s progress and determines next steps in the student’s education. Fellows teaching special education will likely have the opportunity to team teach or use other teachers as resources, building relationships throughout the school site to support learning in the classroom. Fellows in this setting may also design individualized schedules so that students participate in academic classes with their grade-level peers for a portion of the day.

One of the most exciting aspects of a placement in special education is the opportunity to be both advocate and teacher. While teachers are first and foremost responsible for academic goals, they also work to develop a positive school environment for students with special needs. Teachers encourage students to participate in all aspects of school life and become a liaison to ensure that students receive the same opportunities as their counterparts taking a mainstream course load. As a case manager, special education teachers monitor students’ progress and report to families and other teachers, while at the same time relying on organizational skills to develop individualized tracking systems and manage case-related paperwork. In addition, Fellows will receive specialized training and support through their licensure program.

While there are many challenges in this placement—students are often far behind their academic potential, many have internalized negative assumptions about their abilities, and special education teachers need to balance the demands of teaching and case management—there are enormous rewards. Teachers in a special education setting have the potential to see significant growth in students’ abilities and join a civil rights movement to ensure that all children have access to an outstanding education. Teachers of special education often cite strong personal relationships with students and their families, as well as smaller class sizes, as additional reasons for teaching in a special education setting.


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