Opinion
Teacher Preparation Opinion

The Cool Ones

By Samantha Cleaver — September 06, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

If I am lying on the couch when my boyfriend comes home from work, he knows I had a bad day. If I am already crying, or burst into tears when he walks through the door, he knows he will probably have to make dinner, and I will definitely want dessert. Living with a first-year teacher is touch-and-go. Some days, I am home by 4 p.m. I work out and cook dinner, 1950s-housewife-style, by 5:30. Other days, I am not home until six or later, sullen and crabby. Often, I bring work home, and dinner burns as I type progress reports, lesson plans, or parent letters.

Being a first-year, alternatively trained special education teacher is a 24-7 job. Outside of work, my teacher friends and I talk about teaching. Watching TV, I get ideas for teaching. Lying in bed, before I fall asleep, I think of different situations in teaching. Even in my dreams, I am succeeding or failing at teaching.

We demonstrate many of the behaviors we don’t want from our students: irritability, restlessness, short attention spans, talking back. ‘You have to be special ed. to teach it,’ we joke.

In 2005, I joined an alternative-certification program in Washington known as the District of Columbia Teaching Fellows, or DCTF. Each year, 100 professionals in the metropolitan area change careers and move into teaching through this program. Of these, one-third are special education teachers.

Our program begins with summer school teaching and a special education crash course stressing the field’s legal aspects—laws, labels, and liabilities. It ends the following summer, when we set our sights on permanent teaching positions. Along the way, we master the everyday aspects of our jobs—teaching, planning, behavior management, parent relations—in an intense unfolding of awareness and responsibility. For me, that process began last August, when I started teaching a small class of kindergarten students with developmental delays.

As a special education teaching fellow, I am part of a closely knit group of teachers, united in our unique vocabulary and experiences. We deal with problems that overwhelm regular education teachers. However novice, we are the “tough” ones, the intensive-care doctors of teaching, the last resort. Other teachers are impressive, good at their jobs, but we are the “saints,” the patient ones who take the cases no one else wants. As a group, we demonstrate many of the behaviors we don’t want from our students: irritability, restlessness, short attention spans, talking back. “You have to be special ed. to teach it,” we joke. All the while, our lives are consumed with first-year-teacher syndrome, exacerbated by the special rigors of teaching special education.

We talk in a code of acronyms: LD, DD, IEP, MR,IDEA, SLI, FAPE, LRE, OHI, TBI, SEC. We navigate a rigid system; we assess, evaluate, discuss, assign, accommodate, reassess, re-evaluate, reassign, transition. We learn, inadvertently, how to document behaviors in ways that make us seem competent: “He was brought to the office” instead of “I dragged him down the hall, kicking and screaming.” “I redirected her to sit” instead of “I yelled at her for the millionth time to sit down!”

One constant topic of conversation is our overwhelming amount of responsibility in light of our ineptitude.

We swap horror stories of students throwing chairs and attacking teachers, 5-year-olds charged with assault, gang shootings, and restraining 300-pound students with autism. We are impressed with our friends’ and our own abilities to manage classrooms of unruly and sometimes dangerous students without supplies, assistance, support, or even bathroom breaks.

As our first year progresses, we lose colleagues. They return to their old jobs or start new ones. This gives the rest of us something to be proud of—we are sticking it out. Special education is not for the faint of heart. In December, one of my closest teaching friends is injured on the job when one of her students with emotional disturbance (in our parlance, ED) pulls a chair out from under her, spraining her back. She is out of school for weeks and goes back to work with a vial of pain medication. “I’m not going to quit,” she says in January, “but I’m counting the days till June.” The rest of us, content with Advil for our stress headaches, are humbled.

We know we’re boring, droning on and on about behavior management, teacher’s aides, buildings and rooms that are inadequate, the trials of working in a bureaucracy. But we want the best, we tell ourselves and each other. We remember our applications for the program and laugh. Back in December and January of the previous year, we quoted slogans about changing the world “one child at a time.” More than that, we wanted to be the “cool” ones, the young, hip, fresh teachers that made learning fun. As the year wears on, we count the days until winter break, spring break, and, finally, summer. Only the most optimistic and dedicated contemplate teaching summer school.

There are days that go so well that we get a glimpse of what it will be like when we are veteran teachers and everything comes easily, behavior management is a well-practiced skill, accommodations are made flawlessly, and our students are learning at record paces. But soon enough we are back to normal, which means we’ll eat dessert that night.

One constant topic of conversation is our overwhelming amount of responsibility in light of our ineptitude. Before we were teachers, many of us were experts in jobs that we had trained for four years or more to join. We were lawyers, PR specialists, computer programmers, government workers. Then we moved to the bottom of a very tall ladder, with only eight weeks to train. No wonder we find it hard to navigate, to fit in, and are easily overwhelmed.

On the final day of our first year of teaching, we bask in our first summer. Our rooms are packed, our students have had their pizza parties, are signed up for summer school, and have received their good-bye hugs. Now, we are all looking forward, with wary enthusiasm, to our second year. In August, we think, we will know what to expect, and a new DCTF special education cohort can take over as the “cool” ones.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Cool Ones

Events

Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
STEM Fusion: Empowering K-12 Education through Interdisciplinary Integration
Join our webinar to learn how integrating STEM with other subjects can revolutionize K-12 education & prepare students for the future.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
School & District Management Webinar How Pensions Work: Why It Matters for K-12 Education
Panelists explain the fundamentals of teacher pension finances — how they are paid for, what drives their costs, and their impact on K-12 education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teacher Preparation These Preparation Programs Are Creating a 'Tutor to Teacher' Pipeline
A new pipeline offering an authentic glimpse of the profession is growing, despite patchy financial cover.
8 min read
Photograph of an adult Black woman helping a female student with an assignment.
iStock/Getty
Teacher Preparation Opinion 3 Ways to Give Preservice Teachers Meaningful Classroom Experiences
A veteran teacher offers guidance on how to support teacher-candidates.
Allison Kilgore Thompson
3 min read
A novice teacher shadow is cast across an empty classroom.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + DigitalVision vectors + Getty Images
Teacher Preparation AI Is Coming to Teacher Prep. Here's What That Looks Like
One preparation program is banking on AI to transform new teacher training.
4 min read
Collage illustration of computer display and classroom image.
F. Sheehan for Education Week / Getty
Teacher Preparation Few Teachers Learn About 'Science of Reading' in Their Prep Programs. Some Colleges Are Working on That
As states and districts mandate evidence-based literacy practices, the burden of training in this approach falls primarily on teachers.
6 min read
A female teacher of Asian ethnicity is helping her multi ethnic group of students with a book to read. They are all dressed casually and are at their school library.
E+/Getty