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Teaching Special Ed Doesn't Have To Be So Hard

Lee Hale
Stephanie Johnson nearly left special education last year due to the intense workload.

A good special education teacher is hard to find. And even harder to hang on to. Rigorous teaching schedules combined with mounds of paperwork can lead to burnout. And for one Utah teacher, it was almost too much.

This time last year, Stephanie Johnson was miserable.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just so much work. Like I just feel like I cannot do it," Johnson said.


Johnson was in her third year teaching at a junior high school in Lindon, Utah. And on the outside, it looked like she was doing great.


Her classes ran smoothly. Students loved her. Parents loved her. But in reality, she was drowning. Because special education requires a lot.


“Compliance and laws and paperwork," said Johnson at the time. "Oh my gosh it's so much."


Johnson said she thought about leaving all the time. But this year, things are a lot different.


She’s now teaching at Renaissance Academy in Lehi. The first thing I notice when I visit her new classroom is a feeling of calm.


It's a Friday during normal school hours, but there are no students in the room. Just Johnson and fellow teacher, Karen Sue Nielson. 


Together they teach all of the special education students at the school, grades K through 9, multiple times a week.



But on Fridays, for most of the day, they have a classroom without students. Which comes in handy.


“There’s piles of work on our desk that need to get done," says Johnson. "There’s things that need to be corrected. There’s progress monitoring that needs to be completed. There’s meetings. There’s paperwork. There’s still a lot of work to do and I love that we have Fridays to get that done.”


Stephanie loves Fridays. In fact, there’s a lot of things she loves about her job.


“This is what I’m able to get done," says Johnson as she pulls a binder from her bookshelf.


"This is my progress monitoring folder," she explains. "It says 'progress monitoring.' It said progress monitoring last year. It’s the same folder I used. Only this year it’s full of actual progress monitoring,” Johnson laughs.


Actual progress. That’s what special education is all about.This folder is how Johnson tracks individual goals for each of her students. Specifically, math goals.


She points to a graph showing a student's progress with adding and subtracting multi digit numbers. It's trending up. There's been significant improvement since the first term. 


This amount of detail. This attention to the individual student. It’s a concept that Johnson has always believed in but now she can actually put it into practice.


For Johnson, this is the difference between babysitting students actually teaching them. "I feel like this is true special education," she says.


A lot goes on behind the scenes to make this happen. We walk down the hall, through another classroom, into a back office that’s pretty cramped. It’s where Kim Beck works. The school’s special education director.


Beck point to some filing cabinets, "have four full filing cabinets of student files. Every student has a file that’s locked in my filing cabinet."


It looks like your typical office, but the work that Beck does here is critically important.


“I try to take most of that paperwork load off of the teachers so it allows them to teach during the day," Beck says. "Because this is a whole lot of paperwork. And a whole lot of compliance and that services are being maintained at a legal level.”


Special education services are guaranteed by law. Files like these prove that students are receiving the help they need.


Beck also tests students in the school to see if they qualify for special education or if they’re ready to leave it. And she schedules meetings with parents.


“I don’t think the paperwork itself is too cumbersome," says Beck. "Where it becomes cumbersome is the teacher that’s teaching all day is now having to do that paperwork.”


To put it simply, it’s like having two completely different jobs. I know this from personal experience. I used to be a special education teacher in Utah. And the reason I’m not anymore is because I was overwhelmed.


This approach Beck and Johnson have, dividing and conquering. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.


"I think first of all you have to find a special education person who likes paperwork and those are few are far between," says Beck. "I do love paperwork, so that setting works here.”


Glenna Gallo is Utah’s state director of special education. She agrees that teachers like Beck are rare.

The state is trying to do a better job of recruiting people like her and Johnson. Both teachers who love to teach and those who love the paperwork. Because as of right now, schools are hurting.


“We definitely do have a shortage of special educators as well as related service providers," says Gallo.


Empty classrooms need qualified teachers. But qualified teachers also need the right classroom. Perhaps like the one at Renaissance Academy.


When the students are back in Johnson's room, she snaps into action. There’s a smile on her face. She's obviously doing what she loves.


And for now, Johnson is here to stay. Because she’s happy.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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