Until OSPI takes action to ensure proper training and support of teachers, special education students will continue to drop out or be pushed out of school, and teachers like me will get burned out and drop out too.
I spent four years as a special-education teacher in Massachusetts, and I thought my teaching career would continue until some distant retirement date. But after moving to Washington, I taught school for just two years before I quit.
I loved teaching, and I still miss it, but the ACLU’s recent lawsuit against the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) reminded me why I left. The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students in special education that asks OSPI to ensure special-education students remain in school instead of being pushed out.
In Washington, my colleagues and I often struggled to meet the needs of children with disabilities. We had enough training to recognize that we could do better, but many did not have the training to actually help our students. It was frustrating, and a definite cause of teacher burnout.
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One of the first students I met when I started teaching in Washington was “John.” He came in the day before school started to meet me and check out the classroom. John has an anxiety disorder, and often experienced panic attacks when faced with tests, graded work and any sort of public mistakes. John’s panic attacks could be loud, noticeable and discomforting to others. Just calling on him could trigger his anxiety, especially if he was unsure about the answer.
Thanks to my special-education training, I knew how to recognize the early signs of John’s anxiety and help him with ways to manage his feelings. If he was panicking, I could guide him to calm down without completely disrupting and derailing my class. John is a very bright, enthusiastic student who loves to learn. I knew that punishing him would only exacerbate his anxieties, so I implemented strategies to support him. John enjoyed my class and did well. As the year progressed, his panic attacks became less frequent. He made friends and earned A’s and B’s.
Had I lacked the training to help John manage his disabling anxiety, I would probably have resorted to excluding him from the classroom. I would have believed I had to choose between harming my class by keeping John in the classroom or benefiting my class by making him leave.
This is a false choice, one that OSPI can and should help teachers avoid. The agency must see to it that every teacher gets the proper training and support they need to keep special-education students in school and learning. Other states provide these critical resources, and tend to have much better outcomes as a result.
Consider the state that I came from. In Massachusetts, nearly 72 percent of students with special needs graduate from high school after four years. Here in Washington, the four-year graduation rate for students with special needs is only 58 percent. Neither is high enough, but Washington’s graduation rate is abysmal. If I had returned from a field trip without 42 percent of my students, I would have been fired — deservedly so.
When students drop out of high school, they tend to pay for it over the course of their lives. High school graduates earn an additional $370,000 over their lifetimes compared to peers who drop out. That means the 1,694 students with special needs who should have graduated in 2016, but dropped out, lost almost $627 million in lifetime earnings.
Society also suffers when students don’t complete their studies. Students who are suspended or excluded from school are far more likely to drop out and end up in juvenile detention or jail. High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested. This amounts to millions in avoidable spending on policing and incarceration, as well as incalculable pain and suffering for both the victims and the perpetrators of crime.
It’s clear that immediate changes must be made to special education in Washington’s schools, but only one agency has the authority to take on this task. Until OSPI takes action to ensure proper training and support of teachers, special-education students will continue to drop out or be pushed out of school, and teachers like me will get burned out and drop out too.