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. 

What it’s Like When a School Says You’re Not “Good Enough”

Author: Tony Iliakostas, Real Life Stories

There are people who live and breathe off school. In fact, there are people that love school so much that they would rather be life-long students than work a normal day job with pay and benefits.

I went to school for 21 straight years, from kindergarten through law school, and I didn’t miss a beat, working my way through long careers while in school and doing my dutiful job as a student. And while the schoolwork itself was challenging, I think my greatest ordeal as a millennial in school came when I was applying to law schools.

The story
I was enrolled at my dream college, Fordham University. I adhered to the Jesuits’ instruction of satisfying their core curriculum requirements with ease and ultimately honing my studies in communications and media studies. Thankfully, my perpetual hard work earned me Dean’s List honors all four years at Fordham and I graduated Magna cum Laude.

At Fordham, I knew that my studies and interests would lead me to a career in the law, so I began the process of studying for the LSAT. The LSAT is the SAT equivalent for law schools; it also happens to be the first ring of of purgatory. The test comprises of reading comprehension, logical reasoning and logic games. Basically, if you are a book smart person, you could ace the LSAT. But if you are more analytical, scoring a decent grade on the LSAT could be burdensome.

I fell into this latter category and what was normally my virtue was my vice in the realm of law school standardized testing. I’ll never forget having one-on-one tutors train me on the LSAT. The pain and struggle was real and by December 2010, I only had a 149 out of 180 LSAT score to show for.

In spite of the pain and suffering of studying and prepping for the LSAT, that didn’t discourage me; I still had every intention of applying to law schools. The only problem was (and still is) that law schools are always (negligently) fixated on what your LSAT score is. Yet, law schools also require that your GPA is superb, that you have a strong personal statement, and your letters of recommendation are the next best thing to sliced Wonder Bread.

In my eyes, I met all the marks that law schools wanted except for the LSAT score. But I still applied to all the major law schools in New York City.

The hope
Most schools got back to me with flat-out rejections just based on my LSAT score. Talk about a “LOL” moment. But this millennial still had hope, and a true test of my endurance came when one law school finally contacted me asking for an interview.  I was excited about the opportunity to interview at a law school that was a stone’s throw away from where I lived.

So I went in, dressed to the nines, and sat with one of the admissions officers. She introduced herself, sat me down, and asked me a whole host of questions about Fordham, my career aspirations, my brief job stints and internships while I was in undergrad, and why I feel like I am qualified to be a student at their school. The response that followed from this admissions officer was… well, distasteful to say the least, and fixated on my LSAT score once again. I got up and walked out of the interview.

The reality and the heartbreak
It was at that moment that I truly grasped the grim reality of academic rejection. Here I was, working my tail off in every way imaginable academically. Yet, they didn’t see the fruits of my labor and recklessly labeled me as a potentially poor law student without giving me a fair chance. They were solely deriving a conclusion on my potential performance in law school because of a number that they were so fixated on.

Admittedly, law schools, and all schools for that matter, are wrong to abide by a formula or statistics. Schools should be in the business of admitting students not just on their academic performance but their ability to be savvy when necessary, to communicate effectively and to convey real-world qualities that will be essential to their career and life.

Thankfully, it all worked out because my alma mater, New York Law School, welcomed me with open arms, I had a tremendously successful law school career, and my whole ordeal with law school admissions made me an advocate to those who felt like outliers, just like I was.

The lesson
If you’re a millennial reading this and you’re also in this predicament of being rejected by academic programs, fret not. Never lose hope. It’s important to remember that as a millennial, nothing will be served to you on a silver platter. At the same time, if you are a hard worker and you feel like you should be recognized for your diligence and effort, make it known to schools you apply to.

Be your own salesperson and tell schools why they should take a chance on you.  You never know if they’ll bite that bait, but it’s worth a shot. In the long run, a single standardized test will not define your character or your ability to do your job effectively; in fact, those standardized tests are meaningless. What matters is your ability to show that your individual brand makes you who you are. And in this digital age that we live in with blogs and social media coming at us left and right, there is no better time for millennials to effectively sell their brand than now.

It’s been three years since I graduated law school and finished my academic career and I don’t miss it for one bit. Yup, that’s how much I love my job. But looking back and reflecting on all the rejection letters I received while applying to law school, I’m thankful for that chapter in my life. It made me cognizant of my abilities and only reinforced my ability to try harder and remain persistent.

If you are experiencing what I once experienced, I hope my story inspires you to move forward, not pause.