My first year of teaching was a nightmare. The other special education (sped) teachers had carefully chosen their students and grade levels at the end of the previous school year, leaving me with a large group of kids that included the three most challenging "Level D" students at the school, two of whom were autistic and one of whom was wheelchair-bound, legally blind and needed to be tube fed twice daily and have his diaper changed every two hours or so.


The first day—my first day ever teaching school—the two boys with autism arrived simultaneously in my classroom and started literally howling and trying to run out the door. The kid in the wheelchair showed up soon after and instantly started crying due to the earsplitting noise of the howling and screaming. As I tried to corral the other two boys, he unbuckled himself, climbed out of his wheelchair and crawled to the sink, where he pulled himself to a standing position, cranked on the water, and gripped the faucet tightly with his fist, sending a plume of water across the room and soaking everything on my desk, including my brand-new, school-issued laptop. Five minutes into my new career, things were completely out of control, and I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.

As time passed, things improved slightly. I set up picture schedules and routines for my autistic boys, each of whom got a part-time aide, and gained a nurse assistant for the boy in the wheelchair. This gave me some breathing room to try to address the needs of the rest of my students: 16 fourth- and fifth-graders exhibiting a variety of disabilities. It took weeks just to hammer out a schedule, let alone come up with meaningful lesson plans, but somehow I figured out how to be in 10 places at once so that I could cover breaks, change a diaper, break up fights, attend constant meetings, get kids on and off the bus, and occasionally teach my students.

Once a child qualifies for special education, he is given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) tailored to bring him up to speed in a given area—math, spelling, behavior, whatever. This legally binding document is very specific about the goals the student is expected to reach, as well as the amount of time spent with the sped teacher each week. Yet despite these unique and wide-ranging needs, I was expected to teach a given group of kids all at once, for just an hour or two a day, and provide them with exactly what they needed so that they might "access the general education curriculum."

My fourth grade group looked like this: One was bright but had debilitating ADHD that kept him from focusing or completing any work. Two read perfectly but were utterly unable to write, while three others couldn't do either. Another had a behavior disorder that caused her to randomly plop down on the floor and roll around screaming and yanking out her hair. Repeat with the fifth grade, and don’t forget about those Level 4 kids lest they start throwing computers across the room or sit for too long in their own feces. On paper, I had made it work—I emailed my supervisor a schedule that proved I was seeing each of my students for the required number of hours—but in reality, none of my students were getting anywhere near the amount of help they needed.

Some of them could—with my assistance—follow the same curriculum as their "regular" classroom peers, but others had academic skills so low that it was simply impossible for them to do so. This required me to come up with completely separate activities and lessons I was supposed to teach them while simultaneously helping the former group complete their own work and prepare for the tests awaiting them when they returned to their classrooms. Altogether I was responsible for 18 students in three different grades and seven separate classrooms, and was expected to "collaborate" closely with each teacher to ensure that none of my students fell through the cracks.

Which meant that all of them fell through the cracks, as it was too much for anyone to take on, particularly a first year teacher. One of the dirty secrets of special education is that the most challenging kids, the ones who need the most support, often end up with the teachers least qualified to provide it. The turnover rate for special educators is high: By their fifth year of teaching, half quit the profession entirely, and another 30 percent transfer out of special ed to become regular education teachers or administrators. This means that just one out of five of teachers who graduate from college with a special education license will stick with the job long enough to become true masters of the profession.

By the end of that first year, I had learned much and was told I had done a bangup job, but I'll never shake the feeling that I utterly failed my inaugural group of students. Already lagging far behind their peers academically, and in need of intensive interventions and the guidance of a veteran teacher, they instead became part of a bumbling rookie's learning curve and lost out on a whole year of instruction.