One evening in August I was walking around the lake with my friend Sherry who was visiting from Canada. We talked about the hot weather, our families, and work. Sherry has been teaching middle school special education for many years. With the school year just around the corner, she was enjoying a little time off before classes started again.
“It’s challenging to be a special ed teacher these days,” she observed. “Of course, thinking back, it has always been challenging. But even more so now.” Sherry explained the paperwork process that supports students’ learning contracts, very similar to what we see in the United States. “The paperwork isn’t hard, but keeping up with it takes a lot of planning and time.”
I asked what she found to be the most challenging aspect of teaching special ed and managing differentiation. Sherry stopped and thought a minute. Then she laughed loudly. “Everything! The whole package. It is rather like raising your family. You want to be a great mom, you want your kids to thrive, you want them to have lots of experiences and learn to make good choices. You have to balance time, you have to juggle a budget. Oh, you may have a spouse or partner to include—and you have to take time to breathe, too.”
These sentiments are probably shared by all teachers, but dealing with differentiation can be a serious juggling act. With complex sets of student needs, the various support systems for students and their families, and intricate record-keeping to go along with it all—keeping balance becomes very important. Sherry’s comments remind me of the question Susan Winebrenner asks in the introduction to her book Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom. “Has there ever been a more challenging time to be a teacher?” With the full alphabet of labels in many classrooms, there is a lot to manage. Even the most experienced teacher will probably not be able to meet every need at every moment. There is an endless variety of lesson plans and learning strategies to keep track of. Every school district has standards and expectations. All this work makes those moments when a teacher sees a student make the connection to the learning task at hand truly special. All these experiences help a teacher be, well, a better teacher.
Sherry emailed me later, with more thoughts on finding balance. “I set limits on how much I will read about education funding in the news, it stresses me out terribly. Seriously, have you looked at the news stories about budget cuts? To say nothing of the increased demand to serve students. But I remind myself, I am doing my part, I can’t do it all.” She no longer tries to meet every student’s needs at every moment of the day, but wants them each to have their own moment.
And, when she records serious progress, Sherry has decided to have a personal moment of celebration. “I go home and dance around the house to my favorite music. A one-person party—happy for the student, and glad I was there to help.” Sherry looks forward to sharing the progress with the student’s parents.
“When I started teaching special ed, I thought I knew how to do it. Looking back, I was lost in the woods and had to study a lot myself to get comfortable with everything that walked in my classroom door. Now I know that every kid in my class can benefit from all the extra techniques I have learned while working with special ed students.”
The P.S. to Sherry’s email reads: “And I would not trade any of the challenges or stress for a different job. The kids are so worth it!”
Are you a special education teacher or working to differentiate in your classroom? How do you find balance without dropping any of the balls you are juggling? And, when you see a student making headway, how do you celebrate this progress? What helps you keep your own perspective grounded?
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Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom by Susan Winebrenner, M.S. with Lisa Kiss, M.Ed.