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Special Education For Beginners

I have a difficult student in my classroom. My interaction with this student is often frustrating because it brings down my batting average. That is to say, while my classroom management, in general, gets better and better, I find myself held back by the necessity of addressing one student’s constant misbehavior. While this is a burden to any teacher, I believe that it is especially nettling to the beginning teacher, who clings to those moments of classroom harmony like precious manna. It is these moments, remember, that allow us to believe in ourselves as professionals. So the difficult student is especially difficult for us novices.

And how difficult he can be! It seems that there is nothing I can do to change his behavior. I have so many preventives, anticipatory maneuvers, and corrective procedures, but nothing effects any permanent change. It seems as if his wiring is just, well, different from the other kids. And I’m a teacher, not a neurosurgeon! After nearly eight months of agonizing, floundering, creative, and desperate struggles, I see that the boy is still exhibiting the same behaviors as at the beginning of the year. So it is in a spirit of self-defeat and exhaustion that I ask: What can I do with this boy?

The resounding answer, not simply at my school, but throughout the district and the city, is the same: special education.

Special education makes me very nervous, and on behalf of other beginning teachers I am soliciting opinions on the matter. I’ll begin with my anxieties, as these come more quickly to mind.

For one, special education as an institution within the larger institution of public education seems oddly situated as a last resort. We refer children to special education when all else has failed. Wouldn’t special education be more special if it were used as an alternative program for alternative learners? I have a fantasy of a teacher, on the third day of school, recognizing a student as an alternative learner and saying to himself: Now this is a boy who would really excel in a differentiated environment with more teacher attention. But as it stands now, many of the referrals today carry the traces of the teacher’s self-defeat and exhaustion. And I have seen that these traces color some special education classrooms.

My next concern is that a beginning teacher, specifically, is in no position to refer a child for special education, barring exceptional circumstances. The beginning teacher has, by and large, far more difficulties with classroom management. I have had students who exhibited alarming, disruptive behaviors until the next year when, in the classroom of a more seasoned teacher, they calmed down and got to work. Can I refer a difficult child in good conscience?

Now, I have seen some wonderful special education classrooms, in which remarkable teachers create an environment of support and excitement. And I am aware, of course, that some students quite clearly require special services. But at this point I have seen too many students, mostly boys, classified as having an Emotional Disorder (such a common classification that teachers will regularly talk about “ED kids”) and relegated to degrading rooms. My 7-year-old students think that “special education” means failure, and so do the students in the special education classroom.

So I ask of more experienced teachers: What do you recommend to the beginning teacher who is struggling with a student, and to whom a special education referral has been recommended, time and again?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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