When you become a special education teacher, you enter a field that is complex and time-consuming, but very rewarding. According to special education teacher Meghan Mathis, “As a Special Education teacher, I have found that those [“a-ha”] moments are even more phenomenal because, sadly, often the students are not sure they are capable of learning. When you help a student who thinks they can’t learn to achieve things far beyond what they ever dreamed possible — you feel like you can fly.”
Teachers of students with special needs, however, experience elevated levels of stress not always felt by people in other teaching positions or professions.
Lee Hale, a former teacher who currently covers education for NPR, explains how special education is different from other teaching assignments. “On top of the normal demands of teaching, special education teachers face additional pressures: feelings of isolation, fear of lawsuits, and students who demand extra attention. Many are the only special-needs teacher in their grade or their school, or sometimes in the entire district.”
The Need for Self-Care
Given the stress and strain experienced by all special education teachers, you must be good to yourself and practice regular self-care.
Seek out support and encouragement – Teaching at any level can be one of the most isolated professions. Although teachers may collaborate and work in teams to plan and brainstorm, most teachers walk into the classroom alone and spend a substantial part of the day with children. When special education teachers find themselves overwhelmed by their workload or student issues, it is critical that they reach out to colleagues, administrators and other experts for help both with the load and with problem-solving.
Change what you can; learn to accept what you cannot – Given the number of responsibilities and mandates that accompany teaching students with special needs, teachers often feel trapped in a system without any room for creativity or exceptions. Look carefully for those issues and rules open for interpretation of any kind or size. Dr. Mary Brownell, Professor of Special Education at the University of Florida, says, “Focusing on ‘the possible’ increases your sense of power and control.”
Leave work — including concern for students — at school – One of the most difficult elements of teaching, at any grade level or position, is dealing with the personal lives of students. As you learn more about home lives and family relationships, it becomes even more difficult to leave your concerns about those students at school. It is imperative, however, for your own well-being, to separate yourself from issues over which you have no control.
Learn something new – The next time you are given more than one option for professional development, make sure it is something you would like to learn about, not just what everyone else in special education is doing. Outside of school, take classes in tap dancing or cooking, for example, and learn about something you have always dreamed of.
Make time for what you love – Always plan for those special and traditional events most important to you and your family. Keep active with your church or local organizations. Spend time with friends. Take pleasure in your hobbies.
Eat healthy, live healthy – A diet full of caffeine and fast food may seem to help you complete the next thing on your teaching to-do list. But fresh foods, prepared with care and an eye toward good health, along with a good long walk or regular exercise will do more for you than anything promising a “burst of energy.”
Celebrate – One of the most neglected elements of the school day is taking time to celebrate. Whether your students are celebrating a birthday, the local football victory or meeting an IEP goal, consider it a good reason to dance and take a break. Celebrating the small wins, as well as the big ones, will add a lightness to each day.
When you earn a Master of Education in Special Education from Mississippi College, you will be prepared to teach students with mild or moderate handicaps. With the extensive coursework in planning, organization and best teaching practices, you will be able to focus on both the demands of the classroom and your own need to care for yourself while you care for others.
Learn more about the Mississippi College Master of Education in Special Education online.