Teaching is hard work and it is a job which people who have never been involved in education sometimes think is easy. As a teacher, there is never enough time. The actual teaching part amounts to only a portion of what the job really involves and with the ever increasing workload, multiple streams of stress depending on your exact position in a school, it is no wonder many teachers are looking at alternative career paths. Yes, the holidays are good but if you are a teacher who is committed to outstanding lessons, then much of the holidays will be spent planning anyway.
From my experience as a teacher, there are some roles which are very rewarding and some which are not rewarding at all and I think before teachers look elsewhere, if they have never tried SEN teaching then they should give it a go.
During my teaching career I have been lucky enough to experience a wide range of settings. I have taught in a big secondary school, taught in a special school for boys with behaviour difficulties, I have taught in a university as a tutor, for a variety of institutions like the army, international schools both as a classroom and instrumental (peripatetic) teacher and worked as a general supply teacher. It is very easy for me to grade the positions I have held based on how rewarding they are, which I think is the most important factor to consider in any job. Teaching in a special needs setting comes out on top for me every time.
Not all special needs schools are the same though and you can very roughly divide them into 3 areas. The area which is most rewarding for a teacher now becomes a matter of personal preference. One area is for students with complex needs. This could be autism related, disabled or for students who have sever learning difficulties. The second area is for moderate learning difficulties, where the school can operate almost as any mainstream school does but just caters for students who have needs which are better met in a special school. These students may have success in mainstream schools with good SEN departments. The third area being schools which are behaviour based, for students who have been excluded from mainstream schools. These students sometimes have the intellectual ability to succeed but have developed such negativity towards school, authority and systems which has led them to make poor choices. These students might be involved with drugs or be violent individuals with poor home lives who are not safe in a mainstream setting.
All 3 areas require a certain type of person and after having experience of all of these settings I can honestly say that I have found them to be much more rewarding that any mainstream school I have taught in.
In many mainstream schools, sadly there are too many students who's sole purpose every day is to disrupt the learning for themselves and everyone else. Students who want to do as little as possible every day. Students who have no respect or even worse, no trust for the professionals in front of them and they know it. For some reason, early in my career, I seemed to have success with these students so I decided to move from a mainstream school to a special school which specialised in teaching boys with emotional, social and behaviour difficulties. Many colleagues and friends tried to put me off, saying it was a big step backwards but I really enjoyed it and that is what it should be about.
Fast forward about 10 years to now (2021) and I find that again it is the SEN work I am doing which I enjoy the most. Somehow I seem to just fit in nicely in the SEN environment. I do not know what the secret is but something I do seems to work. I have been working with a post-16 class in a special school and it has been some of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in the classroom. The students are very trusting, kind and helpful with a real passion for learning. The unconscious way that they seem to have all their priorities right every day is magical compared to the mainstream students who might care more for their hair than they do for their education.
The thing with SEN teaching is that all of the small things count huge. It might be that a student talks a bit more than they normally would or reads a more tricky sentence out loud or colours neatly inside the lines one day or learns to tie their shoe laces. As a parent, I take for granted all of the success my own child has had between the age of 0-7 and must remember that for some secondary students with special needs, these successes might not happen until much later in life. This doesn't make them any less special events and being part of students amazement and learning everyday, is what makes it so rewarding.
Teaching in a special school makes you feel like a parent because you have to have love and care for the students to have any success. It also makes you work closer with other professionals in the school or local authority. There is less moaning, better sense of humour and the staff are socially and professionally more supportive of each other. They appreciate life more and are more organised because for many special needs children routines are essential, and these routines have to be set in place and adhered to by their teachers.
For anyone thinking of leaving teaching or just starting your teaching career, I wholeheartedly recommend going into special needs or at least experiencing it once. It can lead to many new career paths inside and outside of education and will help you maintain a love of life and a love of teaching.
Thanks for reading.