How Being A Special Ed Teacher Has Completely Transformed My Life


I reach over and turn my radio down, as I watch him limp through the muddy grass towards his trailer. It’s a drizzly Monday afternoon. I wanted to wait and make sure he got inside safely, but something about the view I’m taking in is more poignant even than safety. He’s a scrawny fourteen year-old, with big brown eyes, and hair he bleached blond over the summer.

He carries his book-bag on one shoulder, and holds his coat over his head. As I look at him, I see the things I know about him. He’s the second of five children. He and his older brother live with his dad in this pop-up camper. He will stay here alone until they get back from work in a few hours. His shoes and backpack are new, gifts from a local church. His coat is old, tattered, dirty suede. It was his dad’s, and it’s his prize possession. For him, the sun rises and sets on his father, even though the man literally steals food and clothes from his children.

This kid. He is brave, he is bold, he is deeply loving and sensitive. I make a mental note to look up his birthday later… He’s probably a Leo. He has lived through tougher things than most people can ever imagine, an overcomer by any standard. As he climbs the step into the camper, he slings his bag inside, turns around and flashes me a grin. That is a visage I fought hard to know. Then, he holds up his hand with his thumb, forefinger, and pinky up. I smile, repeat the sign back to him, truly meaning it, and put the car in gear.

Driving home, I reflect on the impact he’s had on my life. This child is my student, for the second year. He’s one of sixteen this year. Of the bunch, he is not unique in his poverty, family situation, or difficult past. Our rural school district serves hundreds of students in situations akin to his. The first time that wide grin was directed at me, I determined myself to be a champion for this boy.

He was not an easy student. Last year, it seemed to have been his personal goal to make my transition to the school hell. He challenged me like no other student ever had. Nothing I’d been taught in college or my previous teaching could have prepared me to deal with his behaviors, and lack thereof. I did everything I could think of to connect with him, searching for any avenue of forming a meaningful attachment with this surly, broken teenager. He usurped the majority of my time at school with his shut-downs and constant need for supervision while walking the halls. It must’ve clicked somewhere along the line.

After a full year, the turn-around he’s made in school is remarkable. His general attitude is improved, he controls his behaviors and no longer shuts down on a daily basis. He participates in the general education curriculum, and hopes for a future. He wants to go to college, have a career.

This school year, I have barely paid attention to him, in favor of de-escalating one crisis after another, and because he’s fine. Last week, I had a meltdown of my own after school one day. I haven’t spent an entire day teaching my self-contained students yet. I haven’t gotten to know my sixth graders. I’m burdened with feeling purposeless.

Today, watching this boy, a bold reminder of an answer I had in college resurfaces. Someone had asked me “Why do you want to teach special ed? Don’t you think it will be hard? Don’t the risks outweigh the rewards?” My reply resounds with me in this moment. “I know I can’t be everything for every student. I’ll want to change everything for everyone, and I won’t be able to. It will probably drive me insane at times. The reality is, to make a real difference for just one student, is enough reason for all of the trouble.”

So maybe I’ve made a lasting impact on this boy, who really only needed to feel loved.

And just maybe, I haven’t totally fulfilled my difference-making quota for a lifetime.