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 to Be a Music Teacher

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Career Advice

Millennials, if you’re considering a career in the field of music, a great career option with many available jobs in which you can utilize your music degree is to teach young people. I spoke with Mike Rodgers, a millennial with significant music education experience, about his career.

Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What led you to your career path? Did you always know you wanted to be a music teacher?
A: My career really chose me. I went to school with a career as a music teacher as a backup plan. I wanted to be a rock star. I always knew I would do something in music. Somewhere along the journey of student teaching, I fell in love with being in the classroom and with the children. I am glad I listened to my band teacher from high school, who said he always saw me doing this.

Q: Have you had any mentors in the field that helped guide you to where you are today?
A: Yes—I have had several mentors. First, my dear friend and former colleague Louis Panacciulli (who is also the maestro of the Nassau County, NY, Pops Symphony Orchestra) who guided me when I got started. Second, the principal I work for, Frank Huplosky, who has demonstrated and inspired me to be a better teacher, leader and person. Finally, my old band teacher Tyrone Jones continually assures me of my own abilities. Finally, and as corny as it may sound, I feel as though God has always intervened in my life to allow me to be where I am supposed to be. It is because of the divine plan that I am where I am, and in my faith, I remain humble and gracious constantly for the gifts and talents I am given.

Q: What are your job responsibilities—simply stated?
A: My responsibilities are to teach children of all ages all aspects of music from all angles possible. My specialty is choral music!

Q: How do you prepare for your classes and lessons?
A: Honestly, I usually use the time of year as a guide for specific lessons. For example, Halloween is great for teaching minor tonalities and dynamics. The spring is great for brighter music. Winter lends itself to so many holidays. There are available catalogs of songs that suit everything from Christmas to Arbor Day.

Q: Which age groups do you teach?
A: I teach kindergarten to sixth grade General Music and Chorus in a public school setting.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: My favorite part of the job is the children. I love seeing their faces when they accomplish something musical. I also have the most incredible co-workers.

Q: What makes teaching music different than teaching other subjectsi.e. science, studio art, P.E.?
A: Music is the only subject where your hobby is also what you do every day. There is the music you have to do and then the music you want to do. We are constantly trying to be working musicians as well.

Q: Describe your typical day.
A: Get up at 6:30 a.m., plan for chorus, teach chorus, get ready for five classes, eat a good lunch, have rehearsals, practice my music and then head home. When home, practice more music, prepare for the next day and if there is a concerthead there!

Q: What career advice would you offer to millennials looking to become music teachers?
A: To all those millennialsif this is what you want to doremember that sacrifice is not above you. Also, nobody owes you anything. If you get your foot in the door, then job opportunities are yours to lose. You may believe that you are the best at your craft, but there is always more to learn and if you think there isn’t, do the world a favor and leave the profession, because there is no room for “know-it-alls.” Work hard, get there early, stay late and never forget why you became a music teacher. Never stop practicing. Finally, and this is the most important, if you want to change the world with musicthen do itand stop talking about. If you are resentful or entitled at any point, you will have a career of disappointing experiences and let downs, and are no good to anyone. Music is a gift and beautiful craft and if you abuse the power you have using it, than you don’t deserve to teach it. Everyone is replaceablemake yourself unique.