Special Education Teachers Make a Difference

One in 16 American students has been diagnosed with a specific learning disability and receives special education services, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Most students with learning disabilities look and sound like typical students, showing no outward signs of their disabilities. All too often, this causes society to view them as lazy and uncaring students rather than students working to succeed despite their disabilities. This mindset is not only unfortunate but also damaging.

Many high school students with learning disabilities are well aware of what others say about them. They hear comments like, “They’re just lazy.” “They don’t really want to learn.” “They could do the work if they just focused.” “They don’t want to work hard.”

These comments are never helpful. If anything, these comments exacerbate the issue by assuming the problems are caused by character flaws or poor choices rather than brain-based, diagnosable learning disabilities.

It is no surprise then, that studies show students with learning disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended from school and three times more likely to drop out of high school than peers without a learning disability. Frustration and misunderstanding has led to poor judgement by students and adults. Nobody understands these issues and statistics more than high school special education teachers.

“Our most important job as special education teachers is to help our students achieve success. We are there, every day, to remind them that their disability does not and should not define who they are. We help them recognize they are smart and talented and capable of success,” said Dan Wilson, special education department chair at John Marshall High School.

With the right assistance and encouragement, students with learning disabilities can achieve success in the workforce or college. “Our students have graduated high school and moved on to technical schools, community colleges and universities. Some go straight into gainful employment,” Wilson said. “I work with students who shine in career and technical programs, who can rebuild engines, weld, design houses and craft machine tools. I work with students who shine on our sports teams, who are great athletes and teammates, who go on to play in college as well.”

Like Wilson, many special education teachers have watched students with learning disabilities succeed, and much of that success is because of the professional expertise and experience of our special education teachers who work tirelessly to help their students achieve success.

Special education teachers have numerous roles: classroom teacher, co-teacher, case manager, behavior specialist, meeting facilitator, counselor and student advocate, and it is not unusual for them to take on all of these roles within the same day. They work with students and their parents, teachers, aides, administrators, psychologists, physicians, physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists. They work individually with each student and everybody involved in the student’s education to create a plan, unique to that student’s needs, to help them be successful in the classroom. This individualized education plan (IEP) it is a legal document, and it is the responsibility of the special education teacher to ensure the plan is carried out by the teachers involved with the student’s education.

This may mean the special education teacher acts as a resource for the general education teacher. For instance, the special education teacher may recommend a text-to-speech application to help a student comprehend an assigned article to read. Depending upon a student’s specific needs, a special education teacher may be in the general classroom to assist students with learning the material, a model known as co-teaching. In some co-teaching classrooms, the general education teacher instructs, and the special education teacher provides help or accommodations to students as needed. In some instances, the general education teacher and the special education teacher share the duties of instruction.

Oftentimes, within the average school day, special education teachers may be consulting general education teachers, co-teaching and also teaching classes made up of students with disabilities who need more specific and intensive instruction. And while they act in these capacities, they still find the time to regularly check in with their students and monitor their progress in every class. These professionals are making a difference in the lives of their students.

One such teacher is Kelli Gonot, a special education teacher who specializes in English. On a typical day, she consults with numerous general education teachers about her students, co-teaches in three English classes and teaches three classes to small groups of students who need more concentrated help in specific reading and writing skills.

“I enjoy what I do,” said Gonot. “I am humbled and inspired every day by my students. They may struggle, but they never give up. They have such big, caring hearts, and they teach me more than I ever thought possible. They bless my life every day.”

While these students hear many telling them they can’t, they hear their special education teachers telling them they can, and they will. Sometimes that can mean the difference between giving up and dropping out or earning a high school diploma and succeeding in a chosen career.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was the 2014 Marshall County Teacher of the Year and a 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year finalist.