For many, being a special education teacher is a calling, not a career.
Teachers who are making profound differences in the lives of their students with special needs for the eight county special services school districts in New Jersey say that while the job may have its challenges, it’s extremely rewarding.
“I’ve had so many AHA! moments,” said Sharonda Stevens, who teaches a class of students who have severe cognitive delays at Burlington County Special Services School District. “My students are non-verbal, but they can still connect. It takes time and patience, but when you have those breakthroughs, there is nothing like it. This job fuels my heart, soul, and mind. It’s a driving force for me.”
Stevens and so many of her peers in districts that make up the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts say their job is so gratifying because they can see their direct impact on the students they work with. They help children and young adults with multiple disabilities, learning disorders, developmental delays, and behavioral challenges meet significant educational, vocational, and social-emotional needs. Their success with these students requires patience and many other competencies that are often innate.
“I knew at the age of 7 that I was a natural teacher,” said Stevens. “Then, when my nephew was born with a speech delay, I started doing my own research, driven to try to help him. I wanted to make that connection – and that’s how I’ve felt about my work with my students. It was just always such a natural fit.”
“I can’t imagine doing anything else, truly. I’ve known since I was 6 or 7 that this is what I wanted to do,” said Cyndy Grunning, a behavior specialist at Mercer County Special Services School District. “When I was little, a boy moved next door who had Down syndrome. I saw he kept tripping over his shoelaces; I mentioned it to my mom, saying I wanted to help him by teaching him to tie his shoes. I asked his mom if it was OK; from then on, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: help others, specifically those with special needs. It’s a feeling that floats you, keeps you going day to day.”
The Reward is Making a Difference
Special education teachers say they are driven to help students reach their full potential not only in the classroom, but in life. Instruction from these highly skilled and passionate educators and staff, along with district programming that is individualized for each student, results in milestone after milestone reached within New Jersey’s county special services school districts.
“In special education, we get to see our students grow and we get to celebrate their growth,” said Salem County Special Services School District (SCSSSD) teacher Tyler Day. “Our students’ big moments are often things that many of us wouldn’t think of as victories, but, for our kids, they are major victories.”
It’s these moments, both the big and the small, that cause special education teachers to become increasingly invested in their students’ successes. Each moment strengthens the bonds they have with their students. They show up each day, ready to take on a new challenge, because they care for their students, and they care about the work they’re doing.
“A child who was once resistant to walking into a school building now comes into my classroom with a huge smile. A student who struggled communicating is now showing me pictures of what he wants and needs. I have a young man who said he was picked on in his old school and never had a friend, but he is now developing real relationships with children who truly care about him,” said Lisa Davis, an Autism Spectrum Disorder teacher for students in grades 3-6 for the SCSSSD. “These are only a few examples of the little blessings I experience in my classroom that remind me that everything I do at Salem County Special Services serves a greater purpose. I’m helping students rise above the barriers presented by their exceptionalities and reach their greatest potential both in and out of the classroom.”
“I think what I love most about our school environment is that we are able to focus on more than just academics with our students,” said Rachel Krementz, an Ocean Academy Autism teacher with Cape May County Special Services School District (CMCSSSD) who was named the 2020-21 Cape May County Teacher of the Year by the NJ Department of Education. “We also work on providing our students with the foundational social, emotional, vocational, and life skills that they will need in the future to become productive members of society. Having the opportunity to have that kind of life-long impact on students is so incredibly rewarding.”
“It’s amazing,” said Courtney Schoettle, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for the Gloucester County Special Services School District. “Academic focus is great, but there are so many more needs we can help them with. The families of our students are so grateful for the services we provide, but honestly, we get so much more back in return.”
“For my students, I find that the most crucial part to the puzzle is building a relationship and rapport,” said CMCSSSD teacher Heather Nanos. “I want them to trust me and know that I will always be there for them, even on those days that can be tough. After developing that relationship, we begin to develop a balance of academics, social/emotional learning and life skills. Working in a Behavior Disabilities classroom can definitely be challenging, but it can also be the most rewarding experience.”
Demand is High
In addition to being a fulfilling career, it’s also one in high demand throughout the state. A report published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective shows that fewer people are studying to become teachers in New Jersey, with the number of teacher candidates enrolled in preparation programs in New Jersey colleges dropping from 21,410 at its 2009-10 peak to 7,950 in 2017-18. While there are fewer teacher candidates, there are the same number of students.
“We need more teachers, especially special education teachers,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District and chair of the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts. “Every year, we have teachers retire and take with them all that knowledge and expertise, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to replace them. There are so many natural-born educators out there who we need in special education. Our students need them.”
“Some days are harder than others, but every day is worth it,” emphasized Davis. “My superpower is making a difference in the lives of some of the most beautiful children of the world who I’m so honored and proud to call my students.”
Big Breakthroughs We’ll Never Forget
Stories from our “Special” Education Teachers
“One of my students would only wear the same outfit, every day. One would say that getting him ready for gym class often took ‘forever’ because getting him to put socks and sneakers on was a major ordeal. With consistency and working with him each day, we would make small progress, but in special education, progress is progress no matter how big or small! Then, one day we got to celebrate the fruit of our labor. As the students lined up for gym class, he was over by his locker getting on his socks and shoes. Without prompting and complaining, he naturally just put on his socks and shoes. His 1:1 aide and I just stared at one another in disbelief. Once he was done, he went to the gym, and we made sure to celebrate.”
“There is a student who I have had the honor of teaching for most of my tenure at CMCSSD. I have had the privilege of watching his growth from a young, 5-year-old child to a 12-year-old young adult, who has found his voice and personality and lets it shine to his advantage. Working with him has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. When he first came to us, he had limited communication skills and had a variety of sensory regulation issues that often resulted in aggressive behaviors. It was really difficult for him to get through each school day. With the hard work and dedication of his staff at school and collaborating with his family and his service providers at home, the transformation of this student has been incredibly inspiring. Because we focused on transfusing all of those important foundational social, emotional, and life skills within his programming, his successes are endless. He is now able to communicate more effectively with both his peers and the staff, is able to identify when he needs a “break” and independently requests this prior to becoming overwhelmed, and is more aware of his surroundings and seeks out socialization with his peers and with staff members. Additionally, his academic skills have increased substantially.”
“We had a young student who had a really tough time and a sad start to life. One day he came into my office. He was always very standoffish, but that day, he stood near me and he kept getting closer and closer. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, and I thought this was kind of unusual. Next thing I know, he put his hand on my shoulder, so I reached over and put my hand around his shoulder, and I gave him a squeeze and said, ‘You made me happy today.’ And he asked, ‘Why are you smiling?’ I responded, ‘Why would I not smile?’ He had to go back to class, and as he was walking out the door, he quickly popped his head back in and said, ‘Love you, bye!’ That is something I will never forget, because it was just so huge. It empowered me to have more of those moments, not necessarily for myself, but because I saw the look on his face, and I wanted more of my students to experience that. I think it is important to recognize that teaching is more than academics. In many cases, it is building connections so that children feel safe to learn. Finally making a connection defined that moment.”
“I was working with a student who suffered severe hearing loss, and there’s the possibility that her hearing is going to diminish to basically nothing, so we started sign language instruction to prepare. In just one year, she’s learned so much, even working remotely. This year, she’ll have a sign language interpreter, which will be a huge benefit for her. Seeing that improvement and helping her prepare for the future is so gratifying; you just understand the difference you are making in this young person’s life. It’s so much more than just school.”
“Seventeen years ago, one of my college professors told me about an opening for a position as a direct instructor for a homebound program teaching a 5-year-old boy, who would inevitably change my educational journey. This exceptional little boy was non-verbal and on the Autism Spectrum. At the time, I didn’t have much experience with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I spent my first couple shifts observing and pairing with this child. He was intelligent and innovative, yet due to his struggles with learning and communicating, he often lacked faith in his abilities, which at times, led to frustration and physical aggression. During my time with him, I developed a heightened sensitivity, intuition, and awareness for his unique needs. I worked extremely hard to connect with this child and to show him I care about him, and eventually, I developed his trust. That’s when the magic happened; he let me into his world! His mother said I helped teach this little boy things that his doctors said would never be possible. That is when a seed was planted. Not only did I teach this special little boy, he taught me more about myself than I ever knew! He helped me to discover that teaching was a huge part of who I was. Between being a special educator and now a parent of a child with special needs, teaching envelopes every aspect of my life, and I wouldn’t change this for anything.”