The Agony of Teaching Spec Ed


There was a pair of twins in my reading class.  One day, a girl in the class asked one of them what he would do if his brother died.  He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “I’d carry a full-length mirror around with me.  That way I could look in it and think he was still there.”

His response made the whole class laugh.  It was ridiculous, yes, but also clever.  I had nine students in my reading class, and they were all labeled “special ed.”  At the end of the year, they would have to take the same state test as every other ninth-grade student in the school.  None of my students had passed their eighth grade test, and most didn’t come very close.  In North Carolina, the state uses past testing data to create predictor scores for every student – the score the student will likely get on an upcoming test (I’m not sure if other states do this).  According to the predictor scores, not one student in my class was going to pass their state-made final exam.  Everyone would fail, and fail pretty badly. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, my nine students were required to pass this test in order to eventually graduate from high school.  It seems like a logical conundrum – if the state and the school system have reliable data to suggest the students will not pass the test, then how are they still being held to that standard?  That’s kind of like throwing a fish down on a hot street and hoping it’ll breathe.  To extend that metaphor, I would be sort of like a life guard, assigned to helping the fish learn to use it’s gills like lungs.  Perhaps that’s a negative way to look at things, but it’s how you start to think when you’re a spec ed teacher: Do they really believe that I can do this?  The thing is, it’s hard to imagine that the school system truly does think that you can get all those students to pass.  Which creates a second question: Have they really given me an impossible assignment and just walked away with their fingers crossed? 

Let’s go back to my little reading class.  We spent the year reading and writing like a good English class is supposed to.  I tried my best to make the curriculum interesting: we used Wu-Tang Clan lyrics to learn assonance, played “Match Game” to learn analogies, and had a class poetry reading complete with coffee and candy cigarettes.  My nine students were trying as hard as they could.  Sometimes they’d get frustrated and close their books – the work was too much.  Sometimes we’d just talk and laugh, about how I’d had a bad date over the weekend, or at DC’s new purple wig, or at the thought of a twin using a mirror to trick himself.

At the end of the year, I held my breath while they took their test.  After retesting, 4 out of 9 passed.  Everyone outdid their predictor score.  Which brings us to the true agony of the spec ed teacher: Was our class a success or a failure?  We outdid expectations and everyone showed progress.  Yet over half the class failed.  I talked on the phone with overjoyed parents.  Yet their joy was brought on by a grade of D minus – happiness because their child hit the lowest possible passing score on the nose.  I was thanked.  DC hugged me because she was so proud she’d passed a state reading test.  Another student, HG, literally screamed when I told him he passed.  He was 17 , still in the ninth grade and had failed all of his classes first semester.  Usually when he got news from his teacher, it wasn’t this sweet.

To be a spec ed teacher is to bank everything on hope.  You hope you can teach them.  You hope the odds aren’t as bad as they seem.  Finally you hope that the small victories will add up, the weight of failure doesn’t become too much, and that your students will keep having ridiculous and clever ideas, and the ability to laugh at them.