How do you get better without feedback?


Burnout in special education part 5

I have never met a perfect teacher. If you have then I am really, really impressed and would love to meet this person. We all have areas where we excel and areas where we need to improve. The problem is that it is really hard to improve without feedback.

In some ways special education teachers get feedback every day. They might have kids who lose it if the lesson is awful, assistants who roll their eyes when the teacher says something really dumb, and parents who get angry in meetings when the teacher messes up. They also might have moments where they see lightbulbs turn on for kids, assistants tell them that was a great lesson, and parents who thank them and are appreciative.

While all of those things are feedback, they are general feedback and have never been the best way to help me make specific changes in my teaching practice. What I needed was more specific feedback—feedback like that lesson probably wouldn’t have fallen apart if you scaffolded that activity more, maybe next time you could try….Or feedback like, next time in the meeting try starting with the strengths—the parents seemed kind of overwhelmed by all of their kid’s challenges and it might have gone better if they also felt like they were hearing their strengths. That type of feedback is what really helped me grow but it was far, far too rare.

Administrators might give some feedback but it is rarely specific and formative enough to make a difference. Most administrators don’t really know special education and it is hard for them to know what to look for. In addition, most are busy enough that classroom observations are rare. While there are ways to solve that problem (train principals more in special education and spread out their other responsibilities so they can observe more) I still prefer getting feedback from my peers. There are things my peers will notice that other people would miss—the type of nitty gritty observations that can boost my practice.

You might walk in and watch my guided reading lesson for five minutes and immediately think, “Wow, I love they way she got their attention but man those questions really aren’t going to increase the depth of the kids thinking.” The problem is we don’t have mechanisms or norms set up for you to pass those insights along to me. You might have a super simple suggestion that could make me a much better teacher but if you never visit my classroom while I am teaching or never get the chance to actually talk to me about my teaching, I will miss out.

Teachers generally don’t visit each others classrooms. They are too busy teaching. That makes feedback a lot harder. Most teachers I know are sponges—if they walk into someone else’s room they immediately see three or four things they want to take back and try and at least that many that are uh-ohs. Teachers need a chance to observe each other and to share with each other what the notice that is working and what needs to improve. They also need norms that make it okay to share both the bad and the good. I went into a teacher’s classroom every who desperately, really really desperately, needed organization. I couldn’t talk with her about it though because that wasn’t our norm. We don’t have norms of commenting on each other’s teaching nor time to watch each other teach and that makes it harder for all us to grow as educators.


How are you supposed to teach without materials?


Burnout in special education part 4

One of the biggest issues that I faced as a special education teacher was lack of materials. I started out working with upper elementary students with behavior problems. Then all of the sudden  I was working with lower elementary students with learning disabilities. I had nothing to use to teach them. I had no programs, no books, and no idea of what I was supposed to do. I went door to door to every kindergarten class at my school begging for workbooks, suggestions, and whatever they could spare.

I wish my experience was unique but I have heard it echoed time and time again when I have spoken with colleagues. I have visited classrooms where the teachers teach with worksheets because that is what they have. We talk about using research based materials in the special education classrooms but who exactly is buying and providing these materials? At least in my school district my principal was supposed to provide me with materials and she often didn’t have thousands to spare on the expensive, research based materials that I needed.

At some schools special education teachers aren’t even given general education curriculum materials, leaving them with nothing. If a school district has purchased enough materials for classroom teachers then special education teachers who don’t take attendance in the morning will be left out.

You could argue that a good special education teacher will create their own materials but that argument is based on absolute ignorance of everything else a teacher has to do—and ignorance of the sheer complexity of all of the disabilities that a teacher has to deal with. No one can create unique materials for every disability and group they might see AND do assessments AND run IEPs AND meet with parents AND meet with teachers AND teach AND work with aides AND give kids the individual attention they need AND problem solve all of the odd things that happen every day AND work with assistants AND ever, ever sleep. That long list of ANDs is a huge reason why special education teachers burn out.

It just seems so simple really—give special education teachers access to the materials they need to do their job well. Give them access to research based interventions, to text books and curriculums, and to all of the other teaching material that they need to actually do their job. If we stopped making the teachers reinvent the wheel every year maybe they would stop quitting special education.

What actually is a special education teacher’s job?


Burnout in special education part 3

In the research that they did on special education teacher burnout, Brunsting and Sreckovic (2014) found that role ambiguity and role conflict were significant factors in explaining the burnout. If you talk to anyone who worked in special education they will most likely say, “Duhh.”

I mean who has taught special education and NOT been confused about exactly what they were supposed to be doing. If you worked in a resource role, you probably had to figure out things like if you were in charge of differentiated homework or making modified versions of all assignments for every classroom. If you worked in a self-contained classroom, you probably had to figure out how much time you were supposed to put into creating amazing lessons and how much time you were supposed to put into your case management. If you worked in a co-taught environment, you probably had to figure out what exactly made your role different than that of an instructional aide. Regardless of your role you probably had to figure out how much parent contact really was your job, how much materials you were supposed to create for assistants, and if you were even anybody’s supervisor anyhow.

My point is that I don’t know anyone who started in special education with a clear job description that actually listed, in any concrete way, their responsibilities. What your responsibilities are seem to change enormously from school site to school site and most people, and principals, often seem to just make it up on the fly.

How are you supposed to do your job well when no one, not your boss nor your co-workers, actually knows what your job exactly is? I have met special education teachers who did response to intervention and thought that was their job while I have met others who thought they weren’t supposed to even go near it. I have met new teachers who were told that their job included covering class and older teachers who would never have done it.

At least general education comes with a playbook—you fundamentally are responsible for the kids you teach and their scores on state tests. There is some ambiguity for sure but nothing like special education where everything from the amount of time you spend testing and case managing to the amount of time you spend working with kids seems variable.

One of the simplest ways, in my mind, to reducing special education teacher burnout is to start writing clear job descriptions so people actually know what they are supposed to be doing and what really isn’t actually a part of their job.


Brunsting, N. and Sreckovia, M. (2014). Special education teacher burnout: A synthesis of research from 1979 to 2013. Education and Treatment of Children, 37(4), 681-712.


What does success mean in special education?


Blog Series on Special Education Teacher Burnout Part 2

A problem that I had in teaching special education was knowing what success looked like. Standardized test scores didn’t give me information about my kids. I did my own assessments but they only told me where a kid was—not whether she had made enough growth. The challenge is that every kid with a disability is unique. One kids might just have a little bit of difficulty with short term memory while another kid has major difficulties with short term memory, long term memory, and processing auditory information.  It is going to be a lot easier for the first kid to catch up to grade level than for the second kid—the second kid has a few more hurdles to jump to get there. So how was I supposed to know if a kid had made enough growth? How was I supposed to know if I was pushing that kid enough?

People will tell you that the child needs to meet her IEP goals for the year. But those goals are written by us, by teachers and parents, and how do we know how high to set the bar? Kids don’t learn the same and there is a fine line between not pushing a kid far enough and pushing them to the point of frustration. My friend has a son with Down syndrome. He had three years of teachers who told her that he would learn in his own time, when he was ready. The fourth year he had a teacher who told her that her son was going to learn it now, on the teacher’s timeline. Her son learned more that one year than in the previous three years combined.

We know we need to set the bar high but in practice it is really challenging to know how high to set it. One of the oddest things about visiting different special education classrooms is seeing how differently the bars are set. In one room the teacher has every student working on life skills while in another every student is working on reading—and the disabilities seem the same between the two rooms. We don’t have clear guidelines on where to set the bar and that causes a lot of confusion for teachers and frustration for families.

More broadly, we don’t have good vision of what success means in the long run. Some people talk about gaining independence while others talk about making people college and career ready while others discuss improving outcomes. Are we aiming to get our kids into college? To get them living on their own? To get them to be successful socially? Obviously the answer is going to vary based on the individual children but we need more discussions about our broad vision for our students. If we want better outcomes for our students and less frustration for teachers, we need to start talking about what we are aiming for and then work backwards to what we need to be doing right now in the classroom.

Burn out in special education teachers


I wish I could say that everyone who enters special education stays but the fact is most people leave. They either go to general education, go to administration, or leave teaching entirely. The truth is that special education teachers have higher rates of burnout than other teachers.

I also wish I could say that the findings on special education teacher burnout surprised me but they don’t—they make all too much sense. This is going to be the first of a short series of blog posts on factors causing burn out—and some things I think we could do about it. Students with special needs deserve passionate, committed, competent teachers who are happy to be there working with them. They don’t deserve overworked, frustrated teachers who too often burn out or check out before they get the chance to really figure out how to do the job.

So let’s start figuring out how to reduce burnout and improve the teaching experience for special education teachers and their students.

Here are some of the topics I will be hitting in the blogs:

Vision: What is success in special education? What are we aiming for?

Job description: Do teachers or principals even know what their actual job duties and responsibilities are?

Resources: What materials do teachers need to be successful?

Feedback: How do teachers find out what they need to work on and what they are doing well on?

Rewards: What reinforcement do teachers get for being fantastic?

By the way, these issues come straight out of a needs assessment I did for a performance improvement class. The frameworks for performance improvement are pretty fantastic so I will be using them a lot in this blog! There are obviously a lot of other issues in causing burn out including stress, lack of support, and amount of work— which I will hit on later but the issues above are going to be where we start.

New descriptive writing handout is up!

I finally got around to uploading the updated, much less ugly, version of my descriptive writing handout to Teachers Pay Teachers. Its free and if you haven’t downloaded it yet, check it out. I promise the new version is much nicer looking 🙂

All moved!

I am excited to put up some of my new content and get back to work! I quit my job as a special education teacher last month so I could go back to school for my doctorate in education. The last few months have been hectic but I have some great new material coming– including some handouts for parents on easy things to do at home to increase reading comprehension and math problem solving.

Questions parents can ask to increase reading comprehension


So here is an issue that comes up a ton at Student Study Team meetings. What can parents do at home to help students improve in reading comprehension and math other than just making their kids read and help with homework? I always go back to ask your kids questions. Reading comprehension isn’t a skill that just applies to books. If you have a kid who has difficulty giving a retell of a story, they probably also have difficulty giving a retell of the TV show you just watched. Ask you kids to tell you what happened in the TV show and ask follow us questions– so what happened first? Ok, what then? If your child is having difficulty with higher level comprehension (inferencing, finding theme and lessons) ask lots of why questions. Why do you think she did that? How did she change in the movie? So what was the big idea of this episode?  Reading comprehension boils down to being able to TALK about things that you have read and to answer questions. Asking questions about movies, TV shows, the book that your kid just read, and even video games that they are playing can build those same skills. My new project is going to be creating a handout of questions so if you have any good ones let me know!

Advice for parents at IEP meetings

blog parents

  1. Don’t sign the IEP if you still have questions. Take home the IEP and think about it. You have 10 days (think I got that number right) to make a decision on giving or with holding consent. Don’t let anyone rush you.
  2. Bring people to the IEP meeting (especially important ones like initials). The fact is, this is your kid people are talking about. You are going to have all sorts of emotions to process in the meeting. Bring someone else who can ask questions and support you. Most of us bring someone to the doctor when we have an important appointment because we know we will forget to ask some important questions– think of IEP meetings the same way.
  3.  Ask questions about how. Words on a paper are really nice– and often what gets litigated in the court. But I always want parents to ask about HOW I am going to get their kid to meet their goals and what their day is actually going to look like.  Even the best written IEP is pretty useless– it is the quality of the instruction and support that matter so that is where the discussion should focus.
  4. Please, please be on time. Every person at that table is incredibly busy and is taking time away from actually teaching, supporting students, and a million other things to be there with you. When you are late, you are taking time away from your child and other children. If you want a good relationship with the school team, come on time and avoid cancelling meetings at the last minute.
  5.  Speak up when you are confused or disagree. Honestly, I struggle with understanding some people when they present at IEP meetings. They finish their presentations and I am thinking, “Huh?” If you don’t get what they are saying or disagree, share it at the meeting. I really appreciate it when parents ask me questions– it shows me that they are engaged and let’s me focus on what is important to them.
  6. Be present in the meeting. I have sat in meetings with 15 people trying to figure out why a student is struggling enormously in school while the parent keeps looking in their lap to check their text messages or takes three phone calls.  If you figure that each of those 15 people are making $30-$50 an hour, that one hour meeting is costing the school district at least $600. We are investing that money and time because parents matter, not because we want to talk to each other.
  7. Know your rights. Basically your parent rights say that you are the most important person at that meeting. The law is written to favor you– not the school or teachers. Don’t let the school overwhelm you– you really, really do matter and that has been proved over and over again in the courts.
  8. Put things in writing. You can request an IEP meeting, request an assessment, and request records– but you need to ask for things in writing. Email counts.

Goals and scoring guide DONE!

blog 2

Like everything else, finishing the scoring guide for my assessments took about a month longer than I expected. The good news is that it is DONE and up! I was originally going to just put up pictures of the scored assessment but instead I decided to go ambitious. I wrote sample present levels to match the scored assessments and put up a ton of Common Core aligned goals. These are goals that I actually use– which is why I built things like assistive technology, multiplication charts, and read alouds into them.  I am still adding to the goal bank so if you think there are important academic areas that I missed, let me know.

Check them out and let me know what you think! Assessments and goals

Take care,


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