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