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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Are Some Special Education Teachers Treated Like Second-Class Citizens?

By Peter DeWitt — March 17, 2019 6 min read
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When I began my teaching career in the public school system in the 90’s I was asked to teach a 1st grade inclusion class in a large elementary school in Poughkeepsie, NY. Considering I was certified to teach pre-k through 6th grade, I was ready to take on any challenge that came my way as a newer teacher, and because I was a struggling learner who barely graduated from high school, I felt a moral obligation to teach the class.

I was fortunate enough to be matched up with a special education teacher named Anna Leigh. Anna was from the Bronx, and I was from upstate, N.Y. near the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. From the very beginning of our relationship, we agreed that we wanted fluidity in our classroom. If students needed extra attention or a slightly different intervention, one of us would provide that. It did not always matter whether those students were general education students or labeled as special education. Every student has strengths and areas of growth.

Added to our group was Joanne Valeo, the speech pathologist. Although Jo had a few of our students on her caseload, we all ate lunch together daily and talked about interventions that would be beneficial for all students. Yes, we followed IEP goals for our students who were labeled, but we worked together to provide what all students needed.

Anna and Jo provided me with much needed feedback, and there were many times the three of us taught together. Jo and Anna were invaluable to my growth as a teacher. Both provided insight into student engagement and teaching strategies and even called me out once when yelling at students was the strategy I used. Those first few years of my teaching experience are years I would not trade in, because not only did I learn a great deal and grow as a teacher and person, we were also working together to change a very unhealthy dynamic in our large elementary school.

That unhealthy dynamic that we were trying to change was that special education students deserved more than to be picked up at the doorway and brought to the hallway to be taught. Yes, there were teachers within the building who were considered inclusionary teachers, but all that meant was they housed the special education students until the special education teacher showed up to get them.

Anna, Jo, and I wanted more. We wanted different. And what makes me sad is that although that was more than 20 years ago, it is still something that plays out in schools to this day. For some reason, special education students and special education teachers are somehow seen as second-class citizens, and that needs to change.

Not Labeling Students?
John Hattie is someone I work rather closely with because I do Visible Learning trainings from time to time, I present with John a few times a year, and we often share our opinions on research and what we are reading with each other. Hattie’s research revolves around synthesizing meta-analysis and he has brought to our attention over 251 influences on learning. Those influences on learning are things like student-teacher relationships, teacher credibility, class size and overall school leadership.

Hattie, like many other researchers, calculates effect sizes for those influences. The effect size many of those researchers look for is a .40, which equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. The effect size of the influence is impacted by the way that they are implemented.

There are other researchers who criticize John’s work, and I have written about those criticisms as well, so I will not add those to this discussion. However, one influence of particular importance in Hattie’s 251 influences is that of NOT labeling students. In Hattie’s meta-analysis synthesis, he found that NOT labeling students has an effect size of around a .61. As you may have noted, that effect size is well over the .40 that he believes equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input.

Why? What some of the research shows is that when students become labeled, the adults around them are at risk of enabling those students and not empowering them. Those adults are also at risk of creating a glass ceiling for those students who are labeled, which is where the enabling may begin. Unfortunately, this happens in many schools that also tout the Growth Mindset in posters all over their walls.

The cautionary tale for us, is not that students shouldn’t be labelled, but that we have to make sure the label given doesn’t prevent growth in that student. Sometimes in the pursuit of a label we should ask whether teaching strategies need to change to fit the child and not expect the child to always fit the teaching strategy. But that is a topic for another blog.

The interesting, and somewhat sad fact, is that the glass ceiling philosophy of a label doesn’t just impact the student, but it also impacts the special education teacher. Many special education teachers feel as though their expertise is not valued, and we do not have to look too far to see examples of why they feel like second class citizens.

Two Ways Special Education Teachers Are Treated Like Second-Class Citizens
In my work, I am surrounded by friends who teach special education, or special education teachers who attend my workshops or read this blog. More times than I can count, many have told me that they do not feel as though they have a voice in their schools. They do not feel valued because they teach special education.

That is sad and disturbing in so many ways.

The following are just two examples of how that happens. Those two examples are:

Different Rooms—Some teachers line their special education students up to the door to wait for the special education teacher to arrive. Both teachers don’t teach in the same classroom. One is banished to another space, and all of the students in the class understand who is going out the door. Yes, sometimes students need a quieter place to work, but this is often not the reason for the separation that takes place.

Professional Development—Special education teachers often find that they are supposed to fit into the professional development offered by their school district. They are often told to just go to the session that makes sense, when their general education counterparts have a specific place they are supposed to go.

In the End
Why are we not learning together? I never would have been the teacher I was allowed to be if it were not for Anna and Joanne. If I looked at them as my two assistants (which they never would have allowed by the way!) I would not have learned as much as I did about quality instruction. So many general education teachers are missing out on an opportunity to learn, because they only see their colleagues by their label.

I understand that special education is a complicated topic. However, in the end it should be about helping students grow, because after all, we all have strengths and areas of growth. We need not look at the label as a sign that students can’t do something, because we know that is not the case. If we do believe that, then we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for those students.

However, the issue with special education often goes past just the students. It often has a negative impact on the special education teachers as well. They are sometimes devalued, when the reality is that they can bring so much value to our schools. To treat them otherwise is unprofessional.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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