Maybe Teaching Special Ed Doesn't Have To Be So Hard

Jan 15, 2017
Originally published on January 15, 2017 11:47 am

This time last year, Stephanie Johnson was miserable.

She was in her third year teaching special education at a junior high school in Lindon, Utah, about 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City.

On the outside it looked like she was doing great. Her classes ran smoothly, students loved her, parents loved her, but like many special education teachers, inside she felt as though she was drowning.

She said she thought about leaving all the time: "I don't know how to describe it, it's just so much work. I just feel like I cannot do it."

It's a very different Johnson I find this year at her new school, the Renaissance Academy, a charter school in the nearby city of Lehi.

On a Friday afternoon, her classroom, which she shares with one other special education teacher, is empty of kids.

Monday through Thursday, these two teachers instruct all of the school's special education students.

On Fridays, though, they have the classroom to themselves, meaning they'll actually have the time to do the thing so many special education teachers find so difficult — the record keeping.

"There's still a lot of work to do and I love that we have Fridays to get that done."

In fact, Johnson says she loves a lot about her new job. And there's one person behind the scenes making that possible.

In a cramped office down the hall, four filing cabinets loom over Kim Beck, the school's special education director. Inside the cabinets, Beck keeps tons of paperwork on all special education students, required by law, showing they are receiving the help they need.

"I try to take most of that paperwork load off of the teachers, so it allows them to teach during the day," Beck says.

And she does much more. She tests students to see if they need special education services, or if they're ready to move on. It's also her job to schedule meetings with parents.

"I don't think the paperwork in and of itself is too cumbersome," Beck says. "Where it becomes cumbersome is the teacher that's teaching all day is now having to do that paperwork."

She says this division of labor might not work everywhere. "You have to find a special ed person who likes paperwork and those are few are far between," she says, adding, "I do love paperwork."

This approach, dividing and conquering, wasn't a directive from any school administrator. The teachers just made it happen, and it's unique.

Laurie VanderPloeg, president-elect of the Council for Exceptional Children, says she is not aware of this happening anywhere else in the country.

What she is aware of is this — special education teachers are spending the majority of their prep time on paperwork, "in lieu of assessing and designing and delivering that specially designed instruction that they need to be providing to the students with disabilities."

From VanderPloeg's perspective, that is taking a toll on student results.

Johnson says the students benefit from the division of responsibilities — and so does she. She admits that she still stays late and comes in early, but the difference is that she gets to focus on teaching her students.

She says a friend approached her at a party recently, commenting, "Stephanie, have you been losing weight? You look so good. I don't know, you just look so good."

Johnson replied, "Oh, that's my new job. That's what you're seeing on my face. It's my new job."

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A good special education teacher is hard to find and even harder to hang on to. Rigorous teaching schedules combined with mounds of paperwork can lead to burnout. For one Utah teacher, it was almost too much. Lee Hale from member station KUER has more.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: This time last year, I brought you the story of Stephanie Johnson, an extremely qualified special ed teacher who was struggling. In fact, she was miserable. Here is what she sounded like a year ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEPHANIE JOHNSON: I don't know how to describe it. It's just so much work. Like, I just feel like I cannot do it.

HALE: Stephanie was in her third year teaching at a junior high school in Lindon, Utah, about 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City. And on the outside, it looked like she was doing great. Her classes ran smoothly. Students loved her. Parents loved her. But like many special ed teachers, she was drowning because this job requires a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHNSON: Compliance and laws and paperwork and, oh, my gosh, it's so much.

HALE: But it's a very different Stephanie I find this year. She's now teaching at Renaissance Academy, a charter school in a nearby city.

It's Friday. It's regular school day hours. But tell me, who's in the classroom right now?

JOHNSON: Just me and you and Karen Sue. Oh, that's a rhyme (laughter).

HALE: Karen Sue Nielson shares a classroom with Stephanie, and together they teach all the special ed students at the school. But on Fridays, for most of the day, they have the classroom to themselves.

JOHNSON: There's piles of work on our desk that we're getting done. There's things that need to be corrected. There's progress monitoring that needs to be, yeah, completed. There's meetings. There's paperwork. There's still a lot of work to do, and I love that we have Fridays to get that done.

HALE: Stephanie loves Fridays. In fact, there are a lot of things she loves about her new job.

JOHNSON: OK, this is my progress monitoring folder. It says progress monitoring. It said progress monitoring last year. It's the same folder I used (laughter), only this year it's full with actual progress monitoring.

HALE: And the person behind the scenes helping to make this progress happen is Kim Beck, the school's special ed director.

KIM BECK: So I have four full filing cabinets of student files.

HALE: Kim works out of a cramped office down the hall. And all these files are proof that the students at the school are receiving the help they need because special education services are guaranteed by law. It's a lot of upkeep, and so the words she's about to say will be music to any special ed teacher's ears.

BECK: I try and take most of that paperwork load off of the teachers so it allows them to teach during the day.

HALE: Kim also tests students in the school to see if they need special education services or if they're ready to move on, and she schedules meetings with parents.

BECK: So I don't think the paperwork in and of itself is too cumbersome. Where it becomes cumbersome is the teacher that's teaching all day is now having to do that amount of paperwork.

HALE: I know this from personal experience. I used to be a special ed teacher here in Utah, and the reason I'm not anymore is because I was overwhelmed. So this approach Kim and Stephanie have, dividing and conquering, it honestly makes me a little jealous. And it's unique. It wasn't a directive from any school administrators. They just made it happen with the right mix of people.

BECK: Well, I think, first of all, you have to find a special ed person that likes paperwork, and those are few and far between. So I do love paperwork, so that setting works here.

JOHNSON: Which one is bigger - 92, 96, or 30?

HALE: When the students are back in Stephanie's room, it's obvious she's enjoying herself. There's a smile on her face.

JOHNSON: Awesome job. You did so good on that. I am going to pass you off...

HALE: And that smile isn't because she's doing less work this year. Stephanie admits she still stays late and comes in early. But the difference is that she gets to focus on teaching her students, and it really has made a difference. Recently, at a party, a friend approached Stephanie and said...

JOHNSON: Stephanie, have you been losing weight? You look so good. I don't know, you just look so good. And I said, oh, that's my new job. That's what you're seeing in my face. It's my new job.

HALE: So for now, Stephanie is here to stay because she's happy.

Lee Hale, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF VISIONEERS SONG, "RUNNIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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