Jennifer Young is a special education teacher in Georgia and, along with her brother, Justin, is about to compete against ten other teams in CBS’s The Amazing Race. In her statement, Young mentions her job teaching children with disabilities in words that do not emphasize the limits and challenges kids like my son Charlie have, but their potential:
Describe what you do: I teach kids to reach beyond the limits of their labels.
How will these skills help you win The Race? Teaching special education has taught me that the sky is the limit and the only stumbling block is you. Patience, caring and understanding come with this job too.
Young also describes her teaching career as the accomplishment she is most proud of:
I’m very proud of my teaching career as a whole. It takes a special person to teach and an extra special person to teach special education.”
Teaching kids with disabilities isn’t a job for everyone. Teaching Charlie, for instance, isn’t so much about teaching him any subject matter such as biology, but about teaching him everyday living skills (personal hygiene; housekeeping; fitness and exercise) as well as vocational skills. It also involves teaching communication and helping him through difficult moments when he has behavior issues.
Thanks to the October 29 snowstorm, Charlie’s autism school was closed today. The sun is now shining and, while this unexpected Halloween snow day is tough on an autistic kid who prefers his routine, I’m hoping that his teachers are enjoying a day off. They work very hard and we are extremely grateful for all they do as school is Charlie’s preparation for nothing less than the rest of his life.
Most of my students who are planning to be teachers are thinking of teaching subjects such as social studies, English or math in high school, or being elementary school teachers. Special education has not been their first job choice, though it’s been ranked as one of the best careers of 2011 by US News and World Report. It’s a potentially higher-stress teaching job and requires a high level of activity in “dynamic classrooms” with children who often can’t communicate too well and may be non-verbal. Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association, points out that “there’s more need for special-education teachers than most other types of teachers”; many special education classrooms have a much lower staff-to-student ratio, for instance (in my son’s current class, there is one staff member for each three students). As Eubanks notes:
Too many teachers assume that they’ll enjoy teaching special-ed students simply because they like teaching, but special ed is a different world. “It’s not the kind of thing you can have a theoretical understanding of,” he says. “You have to experience [it] first-hand, both to see and understand the challenges and the joys.” This occupation requires patience, firmness—for disciplining students—and organization skills. “Very often, you’re talking about working remarkably hard to get what might seem on the surface to be relatively small learning gains,” he says. Also be prepared to put your diagnostic skills to use to figure out what’s causing behavioral and learning problems.
Jennifer Young’s statement suggests that she knows these challenges all too well and certainly also the joys. Wishing her and her brother Justin all the best in the Amazing Race and hope she can continue to help many more students “reach beyond the limits of their labels.”
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