“Follow your bliss.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Maybe it’s just my perception, but lately when I’ve met new graduates or people thinking about going into education, more and more of them are considering special ed. I’m always excited to meet other potential special educators. But oftentimes, their answer as to why they chose this particular field troubles me: “It’s where the jobs are.”
I am so enthusiastic to get more people involved in special education. I’d recruit any good teacher I could by talking about all the perks: lots of hugs, moments where a student reads for the first time—I could go on and on.
But as many of us know, special education is not for the faint of heart. While I whole-heartedly feel I am in the best profession, it is not a job that one should go into simply because there is a shortage of positions in other areas of education. I often hear people say they are going to use their special education degree to get their foot in the door, then switch over when something else opens in their district. This boggles my mind. I don’t find special education to be a stepping stone; it’s a path unto itself.
This week, my former assistant and good friend told me that my new assistant had asked her why I chose to be in my often-challenging room. My good friend answered, “It’s all Megan has ever wanted to teach. She honestly says she can’t see herself teaching anything else.” That is so true! Special education, in particular students with behavior disorders, is my passion. It is what I feel I was made to teach. To me it’s not just a job, it’s who I am. I can’t imagine it any other way.
So I am concerned that people would consider special education as a means to an end. How can they consider something that is such a huge part of who I am to be their “bliss” if they are just going into it for job security?
My first day as a paraprofessional, I showed up in white pants and heels. As we walked to the mailroom, the teacher I was to work with (who is now my mentor) nonchalantly said to me, “First rule: Don’t take a punch. You’re not ready for it yet. Second rule: Don’t ever let them see you cry. And you will cry, mostly because you feel for the kids, not because of the things they say and do to you.” We actually took a bet on how long it would be until I cried (I held out until February, though the lead teacher had wagered on Thanksgiving).
Clearly, my expectations have changed: I never wore white pants to work again and heels are reserved for days I’m feeling confident things will go smoothly. The reality of special education is lots of hard work, more than any program prepares teachers for. In my job, taking a punch and crying is de rigueur, as are a good pair of running shoes, working long hours, giving it your all, becoming emotionally attached, balancing curriculum and classroom management, monitoring IEP goals, and so on. It is a job one needs to be passionate about, or burn out will set in quickly.
While I don’t ever, ever want to discourage people from joining this field, I feel students deserve teachers who want to be there for the right reasons. I hope new teachers enter the field with the right motivation—the motivation to change lives—and not just the desire for a steady paycheck.