5 Things to Know Before Making the Transition from Teaching General Education to Special Education

Before 1975, the history of special education in this country was one where students with disabilities were not guaranteed access to free, appropriate public education in the United States. In many cases, students with physical, mental, and learning disabilities were suspended and expelled from public school districts that didn’t have the training or desire to educate them.

However, the Civil Rights movement changed that, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed by Congress ensuring that any school receiving federal money must provide special education services. The EHA was replaced by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 2004. IDEA refined the law in order to begin providing services to students with special needs that would allow them to excel in school and beyond.

Special education has been transformed in the last decade thanks to the tireless work of exceptional educators who dedicate their careers to providing differentiated, highly-researched instruction. Though you often find special educators in the smallest classrooms or sitting at a table in the back of a general education classroom, these teachers have a big impact on their students.

If you’ve been considering switching from teaching general educational and special education, there’s a lot to think about. So, with the help of Erica Ortego, a special education teacher at NYOS Charter School in Austin, Texas, who made the switch from general education to special education a few years ago, we’ve put together a list of some surprising things about what it’s like to make that transition.

1. You’ll need special certification and A LOT of training

In most cases, when you’re ready to transition to teaching special education, you’ll need special certification to do so. Some states allow general education teachers to add special ed certification to their existing credentials usually through a combination of training and/or testing. In other states, you’ll need to go through more rigorous preparation such as additional coursework and in-service practice. Beyond the certification, though, you have to become an expert in issues dealing with development, learning, and behavior. Erica says,

“It’s as though you have to be a specialist in so many different areas. Not only academics but many times with behavior. A lot of teachers will come to you for help, ideas, strategies for students struggling in both academics and behavior.” Her solution was to attend as many workshops on behavior management as possible and read the current research on the brain, ADD, ADHD, ASD, etc. so that she’d have as many tools as possible to offer students, coworkers, and parents.

2. You’ll work closely with a team of people who care about the student

Some people view classroom teaching as a solitary endeavor, but not special education teachers. Erica explains, “You work very closely with the OT, PT, speech therapist, counselor, and classroom teacher(s) to create the goals and objectives for the students’ IEPs.”

In addition to all of these experts, you might work with the school social worker, especially if your school is in a big city. School social workers help children in crisis. They work with special education teachers to help students who are going through life events that may impact learning and behavior. All of these knowledgeable people are there to help, so Erica suggests you take advantage of their expertise. “You learn so much from all of the people that you get to work with, so always communicate with them as much as your situation allows. Everyone’s an expert in their own field and they can share successes and struggles they have encountered with the student(s) that help you see where to begin with a student or where to go.”

3. You develop a close relationship with students and families

Special education teachers get to work one-on-one and in small groups with their students. That quality time creates close bonds. Students feel like they’re really listened to and respected by special education teachers. They also see their own progress on a regular basis. Instead of feeling like just one of many in a general ed classroom, students know they’re valued by and learning with their special education teacher. Erica explains the connection she has with her students: “I love it because I feel as though I know the students I work with better than anyone else. I get to see them and work with them in smaller groups and they seem to trust me and connect with me on a deeper level. I think the most rewarding thing is seeing them gain confidence in themselves because of the tools and strategies that I get to teach them and help them practice in small groups.”

4. You will complete mounds of paperwork, but you have the time to do so

One thing that might be keeping you from making the transition is the old idea that special education teachers have a lot of paperwork to complete. Part of that belief is true. You do have to write IEPs and collect academic data to help students meet goals. But you also have a little more time to do it.

General ed teachers have homeroom classes which require interaction with and planning for 20-25 students and their parents. Their time gets spent on attendance, lunch count, homework, field trips, surprise assemblies, picture days, recess supervision, and 20-25 conferences. Special education teachers usually don’t have that homeroom class, meaning that time is theirs to spend on paperwork and data collection. Erica says, “I’m not sure how it is in every district but since I switched roles I have never felt like I do more paperwork than researching education strategies and teaching my students.”

5. The transition is tough in the beginning

Change is never easy and the transition from general education to special education is no different. First of all, you’re working with students who learn in completely different ways than you probably know how to teach to in the beginning. Though it takes patience to teach general education, you can usually see learning results quickly—one week students don’t know how to multiply and three weeks later they do. The results aren’t always so quick when working with students with special needs. 

And then there’s the guilt. You might hear from your co-workers about all the things they have to do that are taking time away from instruction, like attendance, picture days, and assemblies, and feel bad that you no longer have to deal with those interruptions. But as Erica explains, “I went through that period of guilt. Then I realized that although those things went away, I had new responsibilities that my old teammates did not, like collecting data to write goals and objectives, reading the school diagnostician’s 35+ page report on a new student to figure out accommodations, how many minutes of instructions they needed, their new goals and objectives, etc.”

When it comes to transitioning from general education to special education, the choice is yours. But if you’re driven to help students in meaningful ways, it’s a change worth considering.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children’s fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.