From mainstream to special needs teaching

If I say that my career as a teacher is more of a vocation than a job, it would be true, yet my path to that discovery was not always clear. I sort of fell into teaching. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school. I had grand aspirations to be a lawyer or a ballet dancer, but, in all honesty, I was never great at ballet, and my love of “L.A. Law” and “Judge Judy” was short lived. In retrospect, teaching was an obvious choice that I had simply ignored my whole life. My mum was a teacher, and her brother and their parents, and cousins, aunts and uncles: It was in the family. 

Still, I hadn’t considered it until the day a university prospectus ended up in my hands and I figured why not. Somehow, my destiny was mapped out for me, because once I was on the course, I loved it. I enjoyed the school placements. I appreciated the research elements and the general philosophy of education. I was totally absorbed and couldn’t wait until I could venture out into the real world, degree in hand, to enlighten the children of the future.  

What makes a teacher

What I hadn’t considered was that at the age of 24, I would be only few years older than the 18-year-olds I taught. More, I hadn’t taken into account that these students might already be on their own path to enlightenment and were possibly a little ahead of me in some ways. Engaging with the class—manage the classroom behavior—was harder than I had anticipated, especially when I had such little life experience myself. Yet, it took many years before I could admit to this fact. 

As I grew into my new role, I learned from the remarkable teachers around me. Teachers don’t turn off when they leave their classroom, they are constantly guiding and mentoring others. It’s a personality type that seems to work well for teachers, an arrogance about their own ability that allows them to feel confident in imparting their knowledge to others.  

A couple of tips that help spot out neophyte teachers:

  • They love stationary, pens of different colors, papers of different sizes even hole-punches, especially the ones that can round off corners of laminated work. 
  • They might have been called bossy in their young life, but what that really means is that they know what’s best for others. 
  • They are pretty innovative. Making up games for myself and my brothers to play on a rainy day were endless. 
  • They are patient when they get the rules wrong.
  • Lastly, they have a “teacher’s voice”.  

I was incredibly lucky to be in a school with some excellent teachers. I had autonomy in teaching that allowed me to grow whilst watching those around me. I was a sponge, young and impressionable, yet I had the presence of mind to listen to my elders. Plus, I had access to all kinds of stationary. So began a career that has led me all around the world. 

Becoming a teacher is a gift, the benefits are numerous, and I am not talking about the holidays, the community and the travel. But let’s come back to that in a bit.  

The cycle of life, the beginning of evolution

It comes down to the students, for they are why we do what we do. Watching one cohort, a group of students in one-year level, go through a school—from the first to the last year of study— is a magical movement.  

After graduating, my first school placement was that of a tutor of 31 12-year-old students. Rather than being an academic position, my role was to guide and coach student in their learning, with a focus on organization and self-improvement.  In our weekly sessions, we discussed social skills and relationships. For me, the best part was hearing about what they got up to outside of school. This group included a future Olympic ice-skater who trained 3 times a week, an aspiring baker who would use the class as taste-testers for their brownies and cakes, and surprisingly, a future Ph.D. Fifteen years later, I bumped into this former student, and although I didn’t recognize her, she addressed me by my maiden name. After earning her Ph.D., she had had a child who was beginning year 1. 

There you have it, the cycle of life. Watching as the cohort of students you taught is year 7 leave school for university, or when your former year 1 class transitions to secondary school, these are monumental moments in a teacher’s life, watching time travel if you will.  

Background to becoming a teacher 

I did my time in the first school as a secondary Religious Studies and Special Educational Needs (SEN) teacher. I felt drawn to SEN, which is probably related to my own background. I have younger brother who has Down’s Syndrome and babysat for a family that included 2 children with Autism. I had worked in Adventure playgrounds with children who had disabilities and had volunteered for MENCAP, a UK organization that supports people with disabilities and their families. At a young age, I knew I was good at what I was doing. I enjoyed being with children, with and without learning challenges, and their families, and I wanted to do more of it.  

Youthful enthusiasm and trial by fire 

I stayed 4 years at my first school. As a new teacher, I signed up for everything I could, and had a lot of fun. Although totally inexperienced, I co-ran an after-school sailing club, and gained my level 5 certificate after a year. I wrote and produced my own little play for the kids in the drama club and had mugs with the school logo made for the school fair. It was wholesome fun, rewarding and engaging work, but when the opportunity to work with children with profound and complex challenges appeared, I took the plunge.  

My second school will always have a special place in my heart with the love and sense of family it provided. All the staff members, from the bus drivers to the cleaners, the principal and the librarian, knew each and every child. We all mucked in with school trips, toileting and therapy sessions. I organized integration opportunities for the kids with the local school and we even formed a little choir. Don’t think that it was all easy-going.

There were many times when I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Once I took a class of 7 students, who required the assistance of about 10 adults, to the local racecourse to learn about public transport. This racecourse had a nice area for us to picnic, and it was while we picnicked on the grass, that a girl had a seizure lasting more than half an hour. We immediately called the school, followed by the ambulance as she needed to be rushed to hospital. This day was the most seminal moment in my teaching life. I had to make some really hard decisions, fast. The ambulance men wouldn’t carry the girl up steps, so I instructed an assistant to grab the other side of her wheelchair, totally against health and safety, and with superhuman strength we managed to get her up 2 flights of steps to the doors of the ambulance. The girl was still seizing, and I was unable to reach her parents because they were abroad. In their place, the school nurse met us at the hospital with strict instructions regarding the girl’s medical situation. The parents were adamant that they did not want the doctors to use anti-seizure medication. They felt that she had already undergone so much in her little life, and in their own way, were trying to protect her from more unnecessary pain. But at the hospital, without the confirmation from parents and without the nurse present, the doctors took over. I stayed many hours after the other students had left with the assistants to go home. I held her hand and prayed for her until she eventually became stable enough for me to leave, although the school nurse and her helpers remained all night.  

I stayed at this school for 4 years, but when I became pregnant with my own child, it was time to move on. After this, I couldn’t give of myself physically and emotionally as I had previously. I told myself I would go back to work in a special school again one day, and when the time is right, I am sure that I will.  

On becoming a leader 

Armed with the skills that 8 years of teaching provides, I was ready to be a Special Education Needs Coordinator at a mainstream primary school. It was my first time being the boss of another teacher, never mind a small team. I never considered myself to be a very good boss and preferred to maintain my own management style of mutual respect, teamwork and collaboration. Although the SEN children at this school had mild challenges, this was another opportunity for me to learn and develop professionally. Again, credit for my success here, must go to the amazing teachers that supported me in this new role. I had not realized how fresh I was, or how much more I had to learn. 

Like the saying goes, we don’t even know what we don’t know until we learn it. In order to best support the students, I delved into resources, various teaching strategies, and attended a plethora of professional development courses. This has become a lifelong learning habit for me. In order to stay up to date with current practices in the field of special needs, I access as many courses and relevant reading material as I can. The ever-evolving world of teaching means there is always something new to add to the toolbox. I learned with a passion about inclusion and took I earned a Master’s in Applied Social Psychology to learn more about how we learn, assessment, student achievement, and to delve into my passion on inclusion. 

Looking back

I was ready to move into the big leagues. I secured a position to be the head of a learning enhancement team with a sizeable staff, 25 special education teachers and assistants, in a large school of 2000 students. It was a massive role. I was ready. I was proud to say on my CV, “I hold a master’s degree in Applied Social Psychology, and I am a qualified member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). My certificate in Psychometric Testing, Assessment and Access Arrangements (CPT3A) is a Level 7 qualification and I perform educational test administration in order to apply for access arrangements under JCQ regulations.” I had made it. It was time to fine tune my own skills and mentor others. For me, this was really the highest rung on the ladder, especially as my satisfaction comes from working directly with students, or in other words, management positions hold no appeal.  

I completed a coaching qualification to guide my communication with others, and I invested in professional development for the whole team. Eventually, in collaboration with some colleagues, I set up a network for special educational teachers and therapists that would be the starting point to setting up my own business. But that is another story.  

Why teaching 

I share my story to connect and inspire anyone who is potentially thinking of a career as a special education teacher. I know now that my life’s devotion to teaching others is the right path for me. It has had ups and downs, but I have become a stronger and more educated person through this journey. As to the other benefits I mentioned, well we can’t end without a nod to holidays and time off. As a parent, the benefits of teaching have extended into my personal life, allowing me to spend time with my own children. We have traveled the world with teaching, and I can attest to the international circuit being a real adventure worth investigating.  

Sarah O’Connor holds a Masters degree in Applied Social Psychology from City University Hong Kong, and is a qualified member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). She is registered by the BPS to perform educational assessments and has over 17 years of experience in Special Needs Education
(SEN)
.