Love, Life Stories

I work with children with special needs, and your pity-“compliments” are totally unwelcome

No, kids with special needs are NOT here on this Earth to "teach us how to appreciate" the little things in life or how healthy we are. Absolutely not.

However well-intentioned it may be, I do not like hearing things like: “Oh wow, you work in special ed? You must have so much patience!”

I get it. I used to say things like this myself, back when I had no personal experience with individuals with special needs. It was through my work experiences that I learned the important of getting to know every child for who they are, not just their diagnosis – the child’s diagnosis tells you something, but not everything, not even close.

When we highlight the “patience” of special educators, it’s meant to be a compliment, and I appreciate the sentiment, especially considering I am often not taken very seriously in certain social circles when it’s discovered that I’m in education as opposed to medicine, engineering or law.

[bctt tweet=”Whether or not we realize it, we often think of special needs kids as inherently difficult.” username=”wearethetempest”]

But that’s why phrases like this one bother me. Generally, society does not really respect or value teachers. Why? Because people think it’s easy to teach. “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

So why do so many people praise me for choosing special education as the career I want to pursue? Because they think it’s difficult – because, whether or not they realize it, they think of special needs kids as inherently difficult. 

But would it be so  bad to realize our own internal biases and address them?

It’s uncomfortable, sure, but take it from me: it’s worth it to do so.

[bctt tweet=”Teaching children with special needs is not more or less difficult – it’s just different.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Usually, I respond with something like this: “All kids do. Are there any kids who don’t require patience? Are there any people that don’t require patience?” or “Some of my kids do, some don’t, they’re all different!”

Teaching children with special needs is not more or less difficult compared to what general educators do – it’s just different. And to be honest, it’s not even that different.

Anytime a child with special needs poses a challenge to me, it is not because they have special needs. Even before I entered special education specifically, I had students who posed a challenge. Every child, with or without special needs, poses their own unique challenges; it’s what makes them who they are.

[bctt tweet=”Every child, with or without special needs, poses their own unique challenges.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Children are also more or less challenging to different adults because of the different personalities, weaknesses and strengths adults have as educators.

In order to believe that children with special needs (which is by the way such an incredibly general descriptor that could mean over a thousand different things) are so very different from the “normal” kid, we have to believe that there is such a thing as a “normal” kid.

[bctt tweet=”There isn’t one way a child is supposed to be. Every child is unique.” username=”wearethetempest”]

But despite what we are told by the existence of standardized tests, there isn’t. There isn’t one way a child is supposed to be. Every single child is unique and it’s so important to embrace and to work with that uniqueness, instead of “despite” it.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that there is no student that would not benefit (either academically, mentally or emotionally) from the type of specialized education students with special needs receive: one-on-one instruction that is tailored to his or her learning style and moves at his or her pace. In an ideal world, every kid would have access to something like that.

Next time you meet someone who works in special education, try asking them a question instead. Don’t say: “Oh wow, I could never do that!” Ask them what it’s like, if it’s something you’re unfamiliar with. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know much – in fact, it’s encouraged!

[bctt tweet=”There is no student that would not benefit from specialized education.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I know special ed is not for everyone, and that’s okay, but I love what I do. I absolutely adore it. Working with the kids I work with is a privilege, not a burden. It’s something I enjoy, something I’m pretty good at (and always improving at), and let me confess one more thing:

I do it for me as much as I do it for the kids.

Working in my kids makes me a better person each and every day in one small way or another; I gain so much myself from the work I do that I refuse to label my students as a difficult challenge that I should be praised for taking on.

My kids have taught me a million and one new ways to think and see the world – especially those of my kids who are deemed as “different’ in any way.

[bctt tweet=”Let me confess one more thing: I do it for me as much as I do it for the kids.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In fact, I learn an entirely different set of beautiful things from my students who have autism, ADHD, a developmental delay, a processing disorder, etc. It’s not in any way more difficult or worse, it’s simply different – just like working with teenagers is different from working with elementary school students.

I get to help kids learn math and reading, but also learn things like overcoming anxiety, making eye contact, and communicating something as simple as “I’m tired” without words if they are nonverbal.

I get to celebrate every victory, no matter how small, and see what makes each kid tick – what motivates them, what inspires them, what, what calms them down, what makes them smile. And yes, I get to be reminded every day not to take even the smallest things for granted.

[bctt tweet=”I refuse to label my students as a difficult challenge that I should be praised for taking on.” username=”wearethetempest”]

But kids with special needs are NOT here on this Earth to “teach us how to appreciate” the little things in life or how healthy we are by comparison. Absolutely not. That is not the purpose of any child. This type of thinking is at best, problematic, and worst, egocentric and downright cruel.

We don’t get to decide what someone else’s purpose is – that isn’t our decision to make. We don’t get to decide that another person’s life situation has entirely to do with us. That is not okay.

A special educators job, much like the job of the parents or caretakers of children with special needs, is just to guide the child closer to where the child wants to be – to help children reach their own potential in terms of happiness and health, and to help them develop a love for learning, growing, and most importantly, themselves.

[bctt tweet=”Kids with special needs are NOT here on this Earth to teach us how to appreciate things. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

The children I work with are not charity cases. No one likes being pitied. No one likes it when assumptions are made about them. But everyone welcomes warmth, acceptance, genuine curiosity, love, and an open mind.

Long story short, I am not “amazing” because I work in special education, and no special educator wants to be viewed in this way, because we tend to see our special needs students first and foremost as children – as a group of people as diverse as any other.

[bctt tweet=”Long story short, I am not amazing because I work in special education.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In other words, children with special needs are not all the same; they cannot be lumped together and perceived as difficult.

The services I help provide to kids with special needs should not be considered amazing, I simply help provide the basic rights every child deserves anyway. I don’t want to be seen as amazing, because the way I see kids with special needs shouldn’t be considered amazing, it should be the norm. 

And I hope it does become the norm, over time, as we listen to one another’s experiences and learn from them. I hope our conversations start to sound more like this: “Oh, you work in special ed? You must love it. Tell me all about it.”