Friday, February 24, 2012

Year 2: Week 23 - What Special Education Taught Me

I just needed a job.

It was October a couple years ago and I was an unemployed teacher.  If you’re looking for a job in a school and haven’t found one by that time of the year, you need to start being creative. Going through the numerous job websites I kept seeing opening for “associate” or “assistant” teachers.  Over the summer, I didn’t bother applying for any of these positions thinking that I would find something. But I didn’t and it was September. So I applied to associate teaching job and got called in for an interview a week later.

After two short interviews, I got the job. I was now an associate teacher mainly in charge of assisting students with special needs when they were integrated into the main classroom and instructing pullout reading and math groups.

All teachers in the state of Illinois regardless of specialty are required to take a course on special education. One of the main reasons for this is the trend of “mainstreaming” students with special needs. When I went to high school I was aware there was students with special needs in the building but I never saw them. I think they even left the school through a different door. Now it’s a very different situation as students with special needs are integrated into the classroom as much as possible.

This is great for students with special needs to be socialized and included as part of a larger class room and it’s also great for students without special needs to learn and accept the diversity in different learning styles and abilities. Wow, “students without special needs” sounds really funny doesn’t it? The thing is all students have special needs.  The label "special needs," is a little silly the more you think about it.  

So here I was on my first day assistant a fourth grader with special needs. I had no idea what I was doing. My only previous experience was teaching high school band and here I was trying to help kids with organizational skills and basic math and reading.

Even though I felt like at time I was inadequate and useless as a teacher, I was there and I tried. I literally taught kids how to read. I spent fifteen minutes one time trying to explain to a student why three plus two equaled five and not seven. It was incredibly frustrating at times but it was also a lot of fun.

I did this for two years and I believe it was two of the most important years in my development as a teacher. When you teach high school band sometimes people get in their minds these ideas of teaching these lofty pieces of high art. Sometimes this focus distracts from what kids actually need to learn. When you are teaching basic skills that you don’t remember learning, it’s not about the mastery of the content but your skills as a teacher. That’s what teaching is really about.

It takes teaching skill to explain the form and playing techniques associated with a Beethoven symphony. That’s the kind of things we often focus on as teachers. However it takes a different level of skill to teach a student how to read who has language-processing issues and make seemingly insignificant, but incredibly important progress every day.

Teaching special education changed my approach to teaching from "teaching music to students," to "teaching students about music."  I don't think every teacher needs to teach special ed to get this, but every teacher needs to understand this philosophy when it comes to teaching to truly be successful.

I do miss teaching special education sometimes.  I miss the small groups, of course I miss my past students, but most of all I miss the work.  I love teaching music, but there's something about breaking down skills that come so easy to the rest of us and helping someone understand them.  I do this on a different level nowadays, but it's not the same.

I don't teach special education anymore but I'm proud to say that I did and I feel grateful to have had that opportunity to work with that group of students.

1 comment:

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