21st February 2024

Daily more children are diagnosed with a disability that affects their educational performance. As we see this increase we, therefore, see more children needing an individualized education plan (IEP) and related services in schools. And, the more students enter into special education, the more we need special education teachers.

To the outside world, it may seem that the hardest part of being a special education teacher is working with behaviors and safety. While that is a problem, it is not the hardest task a special education teacher is faced with. IEPs, behavior plans, emails and so forth cloud our schedules more than anything else — including teaching. When college students in such a corresponding program begin their courses, this is one of the first things that will be brought to their attention.

As a former special education major and graduate, when it came time to take my core courses I quickly realized that the prerequisites I took prior, which focused on teaching you how to actually teach a subject, were exchanged for courses that now focused on the paperwork associated with the job — most likely an IEP.

For example, a course on transition planning will teach you how to write, develop and implement a transition plan and related goals that are implemented in an IEP. Collaboration is a course that teaches strategies on how the IEP team develops a good rapport with each other to produce an IEP that best fits a student’s needs.

In assistive technology you learn about materials that can be used to help students in their daily school life. But within that course, you learn where to list the accommodations/modifications, materials and/or services the student will be provided. That place being, you guessed it, the IEP.

In the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Honig v. Doe, the IEP was called the “centerpiece” of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). This fact hasn’t changed. The IEP itself is a legal document developed under IDEA and we expect teachers to know how to write and develop them without legal error. So why, when the IEP is the “centerpiece” needed to have a successful special education experience, do Universities and Colleges provide such little legal guidance to these future educators?

When beginning as an education and disability advocate, I couldn’t help but feel flabbergasted at the cases I heard. I questioned how a district could let a situation get to such a place in which a parent had to seek legal representation to get their child the services the school district was legally required to provide.

The world of special education is complicated to a special education teacher or attorney, it must be much more so to a parent who has a child receiving services. It forced me to think back to the courses I took during my undergraduate years. Luckily, the semester before completing my student teaching and the second semester before graduating, I took a course on special education law which along with my job at the time helped me see that education is really a legal matter at hand.

Of course, every school and program that provides a degree in special education is going to teach and approach its curriculum differently. But it’s fairly simple to see that we are not providing teachers with the necessary knowledge of the potential legal issues that can arise with special education.

Most schools that offer a bachelor of science degree in special education will at most have one course on special education law, but more likely will only provide a course on ethics or legal issues. Sure, when you’re discussing how to write an IEP in any class, you’ll get a glimpse into IDEA and the law that it is. But it’s time to finally ask if the reason we see so many special education-related cases in or out of court is due to schools not providing enough knowledge to these future educators.

The opportunity to work as a special education teacher is one that can give you great insight and patience. But if we want more educators to enter the world of special education they need to feel supported. To do this, let’s start at the beginning. Because the world of special education is still fairly new, that means even these programs that have been built to teach teachers still have their kinks to be worked out.

As the saying goes, “Now is the time for change.” Let’s give these teachers, parents and students what they deserve, and let’s actually teach.

Suzy Ahlman is a disability and education advocate. She has a bachelor’s degree in special education with a minor in autism studies from Utah Valley University and a masters in legal studies from the University of San Diego School of Law.