Teaching That Starts at the Heart: A Chat With a Special Ed Teacher

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Career Advice

Millennials, we’d truly be nothing without the teachers who have shaped our education and our lives.

The good ones have shown us compassion and kindness as well as math and social studies. Some of us took the inspiration we found from our teachers a step further, and entered the education field — some of us even taking the extra step and teaching special education to children with special needs.

We chatted with Dani DiBari, a millennial special education teacher from Connecticut, about what it takes to make it in the field. Here’s what she had to say:

What made you want to start your work in special education?
I always knew I wanted to teach. I thought I really wanted to be a first grade or third grade teacher, and work with a class of kids. Then I had the opportunity to be a one-on-one aide for a student, and I realized there was a whole different side to teaching I had never let myself contemplate before.

How important is a special ed degree when applying for teaching jobs?
A special ed degree is actually preferred when you’re applying for teaching jobs. In education, children with disabilities are placed in the least restrictive environments (LRE). This means they stay in the regular classroom with their peers as much as possible. With the kids with mild disabilities in regular ed classrooms, a special ed degree makes sure you can help all your students reach their full potential.

What have you learned in your time in the field so far?
The most important thing I’ve learned is to accept help from wherever it comes. Especially in education, there are always new techniques and new strategies being developed. Other people with more experience will know more than you, so if you ever need help with something, ask. With all the paperwork that needs to be completed and sent out that is related to special ed, it can be easy to overlook or forget things. Asking and accepting people’s help makes sure you do what you need to.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned working with children with special needs?
The biggest thing I’ve learned as a special ed teacher is how to talk to a child’s parents. No parent ever wants to hear that their child is anything other than perfect, and sometimes we have to tell parents pretty tough news. Special ed teachers hold annual meetings with parents, school administrators, and any support staff (speech, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and so on) to discuss their child’s progress, and knowing how to deliver not-so-great news is crucial.

How important are new technologies in the special ed classroom?
It really depends on the child’s need. Some students with more challenging disabilities really benefit from using technologies in the classroom. There are devices that will read tests to them, help them communicate, or help them get around the school. Other technologies will be helpful to students whose first language is different from English. There are devices that will translate work for them so they understand it better. However, students with more mild disabilities may be just fine with pencil and paper, and maybe a calculator.

What’s the one thing you’d like to advocate on behalf of your students?
One thing I really want people to know about my students is that a test is not always the best measure of their abilities. Some of my students have trouble with reading comprehension. They don’t understand what they read as easily as other children. To help with this, I don’t usually give my students tests in the subjects I teach them. In the other subjects, I read them their tests as much as possible. The problem is, the universal measuring tool for whether a student qualifies for or doesn’t qualify for special ed is: a test. I’ve seen the results of that test determine whether or not an eighth grade student got into a particular high school. Our students are just like any other student — some of them are not good test-takers. And that needs to be taken into account when they are being considered for things. A test is not the only way to assess their abilities. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

How important are professional mentors in the special ed field?
Extremely. Especially for a new teacher, there are so many things that you may never have done before. Having a mentor teacher is an invaluable resource. I asked my mentor teacher a zillion questions a day, and I’m a better teacher for it.

What advice would you have for millennials who also want to pursue teaching special education?
I would advise them to make sure it’s really something they want to do. Special ed is more involved than regular ed. You work with smaller groups of kids at a time, but the kids you work with need more time and attention than kids in regular ed classes. If you don’t have that amount of patience or willingness to try new things or think outside the box, special ed is not for you.

Why would you encourage other millennials to become special ed teachers?
The rewards are crazy. My favorite part of teaching has always been what I call “the a-ha moment.” It’s that moment when you see the child’s brain click, when they understand what you’re teaching them. In special ed, because the group sizes are smaller than a regular class, I get to see those moments up close and personal.

What’s the one thing you wish you knew before entering into this field?
I wish I knew how hard it would be to get into the field. I probably would have been more proactive about getting my special ed certification, and hopefully that would have made getting a job easier.

What has most surprised you so far?
How much I like teaching middle schoolers. I had always worked with elementary schoolers and I thought that was where I wanted to be forever. Then, I had the opportunity to work with seventh and eighth graders and I was surprised to find out that I really love it. I come home every day with stories about my students, and they make me laugh all the time. I even had a group of seventh grade girls planning how my boyfriend should propose to me. In case you were wondering, they thought it should happen in the school parking lot, with a big sign that said “Will you marry me?” and a boom box over his head like John Cusack in Say Anything.


Dani DiBari is a Elementary and Special Education teacher from Wilton, CT, and currently teaches special education in Bridgeport, CT. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary and Special Education from Salve Regina University and a Master’s degree in Education from Sacred Heart University. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s