Special Education Teaching vs. General Classroom Teaching

General education teachers and special education teachers share many of the same duties. In fact, they share many of the same students. This is because children with identified special needs often spend a portion of the day in the general education classroom and a portion of the day receiving more intensive services in a separate space. There are, however, significant differences in teaching role. The special education teacher may serve as case manager for children with special needs. Case management includes everything from providing direct services to carrying out administrative duties.

There are multiple special education teaching roles, and these will differ from general education teaching roles in different ways.

Special Education Teaching Roles

A special education teacher may have a self-contained classroom or provide support in a resource room. Some special education teachers team with general education teachers to serve children with special needs in an inclusion setting. The special education teacher may be expected to serve a resource for other teachers, helping them modify the curriculum, management system, and physical environment.

Children with very intensive needs often spend most of their day in a self-contained classroom. These children may have intellectual disability, autism, blindness, and/or multiple disabilities, including physical challenges. The child may use mobility or communication tools and may need assistance with non-academic tasks. A special education teacher will generally have the assistance of instructional assistants who provide academic support and handle other duties like escorting less independent children to the bathroom.

The number of children in a special education room will vary from state to state but will generally be small: eight or so. A teacher will to get to know a small number of children very well. Thus the position may be suited for people who prefer depth over breadth in their relationships and daily routines. A larger percentage of special needs students need intensive support managing their behavior and/ or attention (even in cases where the disability is intellectual). On the plus side of management: A smaller class size means fewer bodies moving through space at any moment in time. Maximizing attention can mean maximizing learning.

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A resource teacher may work with many children over the course of a day or week, but will generally work with only a small group of them at any given time. He or she will be expected to be knowledgeable of academic curriculum across grade levels, but academic teaching will be quite different than general classroom teaching at the elementary level. There will generally be less breadth with more of a focus on reading, writing, and mathematics.

Teachers who transition to special education should be prepared for significant changes in pacing. Students in self-contained special education classrooms learn academic skills such as reading. However, the increased need for repetition can give a different feel to teaching. A self-contained intensive needs teacher may spend a significant portion of the day teaching functional skills. Of course teachers of young children also spend some time teaching functional skills. One difference is that the special education teacher will need to teach them in a more systematic manner — and document having taught them.

Case Management and Administrative Duties

A special education teacher is responsible for providing and coordinating individualized instruction. Special needs students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which guide their learning. IEPs are developed by a team. The general education teacher will often have a few special needs students that he or she must attend IEP meetings for. The special education teacher will not only have more IEP students but will generally have the leadership role in writing and reviewing IEPs. The document often runs more than 20 pages. As a case manager, the special education teacher will be responsible for ensuring compliance with laws and regulations – and will typically be responsible for scheduling and coordinating as well.

Paperwork is an oft cited area of frustration. General education and special education teachers both have significant amounts of paperwork to complete, but again, there are some differences. Special education teachers often find that more of their paperwork is “high stakes” and that less of it is delegable. Special education teachers must maintain detailed records to show that children with disabilities are getting the help they have been determined eligible for. They must also document progress in a manner that would stand up under legal scrutiny. Even those children who are not yet in the special education system are subject to documentation requirements.

On the plus side, the special education teacher will have fewer children to submit report cards for and otherwise monitor. A first grade teacher in a general classroom setting may administer and record individual reading assessments for 25 children twice each year, track down field trip permission slips for 25 children… and check 25 ‘home folders’ for parent notes each and every day!

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All teachers are privy to information that is confidential. Special education teachers, though, find themselves guarding more than their share of confidential information. The need to maintain confidentiality can have bearing on who is allowed to volunteer services in the classroom.

A special education teacher will work as part of a team with many other staff members. The teacher will coordinate with all IEP team members, including speech therapists, occupational therapists, and other specialists. He or she will also work closely with instructional assistants, or “IAs’. Children who leave a self-contained, high needs room to attend art, music, or other educational subjects often travel with an instructional assistant. The special education teacher will need to coordinate IA duties – and have frequent conversations about how children respond to educational and social activities in other areas of the school.