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Anna Barnes, who teaches an inclusive 9th grade English class, argued that a meaningful and worthwhile teaching and learning experience depends largely on developing a classroom that operates on mutual high expectations and respect. She argued that, " once students and teachers develop respect and trust for one another, it paves the way for real learning to happen" (personal communication, October 26, 2010). To gain this respect and trust from students, teachers must treat all students fairly, expecting each student to do his or her best. Mike Panquin, who teaches a self-contained class at the middle school level, agreed with this sentiment, arguing that teachers and students must respect each other in order to have successful educational experiences. He noted that each new school year, he works very hard at the beginning to let his students get to know him and his teaching background (personal communication, October 25, 2010). He believes that in being open and communicative with his students, he can more easily build trust and respect. Furthermore, both of these instructors noted that a meaningful learning experience was at the root of their teaching philosophies. Their approaches to education are centered on providing the most positive, beneficial learning experiences they can for all of their students, and both believe that to do this they must cultivate a respectful, trusting environment.
When asked about their reasons for becoming teachers, some of the participants I interviewed expressed a desire to give back to their communities and make a difference in the world. Tabitha Marks, who teaches a self-contained class at the middle school level, noted that she felt teaching children was an honor but that it was also a duty. She said, "As a young child some of the most influential people in my life were my teachers. I became the person I am today because of them, and I feel that it is my duty to give back to the community and to make an impact on students' lives" (personal communication, October 26, 2010). Patricia Kellers, who teaches an inclusive 8th grade History class, give a different answer to this question, instead noting that she became a teacher because of an innate desire that she had trouble describing. She said, "I don't really know why or how it started. I just wanted to, ever since I was a little girl. I loved going to school, and I loved my classmates. I was also excited when I had a chance to teach the class. There was really never another occupation to consider" (personal communication, October 25, 2010). When asked why she stays in the profession, Mrs. Kellers argued that her job is rewarding, and she can see every day how much of a difference she is making in the lives of her students.
The teachers I interviewed all agreed that the most rewarding aspects of their careers were seeing students succeed at concepts that initially presented them with trouble. Mike Paquin commented, "It was a great day when one of my students learned the difference between simile and metaphor. I'd struggled to teach this concept to her for weeks, and they day she correctly identified the two was a day of great joy for me and for her" (personal communication, October 25, 2010). Patricia Kellers noted that her most rewarding teaching experience came at the end of her first year of teaching, when many of her students with disabilities proved their proficiency by scoring just as highly on their exams as their regular education classmates. She said, "When I saw the results, I was overwhelmed. I realized that all the hard work and dedication we all put in had paid off. I was confident that I could send my students on to high school and that they would succeed in their History courses" (personal communication, October 25, 2010). This was, as Mrs. Kellers, describes a joyful and rewarding experience. I can only hope that I too will have these kinds of experiences in my career.
For most of the teachers I interviewed, the most challenging experiences they encountered were in their first years of teaching. All of the teachers completed internships and had classroom experience before getting their own classrooms, but they all cited nervousness and anxiety upon first entering the classroom alone. Tabitha Marks said the most challenging aspect of her job was learning to communicate with students in different ways based on their learning styles: "I, of course, had studied different learning styles and pedagogical approaches, but I found that these theories were difficult to apply in the classroom. I struggled with finding the right methods for approaching my students" (personal communication, October 26, 2010). Anna Barnes commented that her most challenging experiences were when her students with disabilities were not making enough progress in her class. She related, "I thought I was a terrible teacher. I took my students' failure very hard and began to think I couldn't do the job. Eventually, though, I sought the help of my colleagues and found ways to reach my students in ways I could not have done alone" (personal communication, October 26, 2010). After these first years, the teachers noted that challenges decreased and even when they did occur, they had established methods for dealing with them. It was a relief to hear that these teachers struggled at first but then overcome their fears. Knowing this makes me more confident going into my teaching career.
Each of the teachers I interviewed indicated that the one thing they would change about teaching is the focus on high-stakes testing. They believed that this testing, even with accommodations given to their students with disabilities, was unfair and did little to actually measure learning or intelligence. Anna Barnes noted, "Sometimes, due to extreme pressure from the state to achieve results, we have to focus too heavily on teaching students concepts that will help them pass the test. We don't get the chance to focus on what really matters" (personal communication, October 26, 2010). The focus on testing is one of my biggest concerns as well, and I hope that I can find ways to help my students pass these tests but also inspire them to become lifelong learners.
Throughout the course of these interviews, I learned a great deal about the joys and challenges of becoming a special educator. All of the teachers I interviewed indicated that their jobs provide them with a sense of fulfillment, and that they believe they are truly making a difference in the lives of their students. These responses have only increased by desire to become a special-education teacher. I hope to make the same difference in the lives of my students as these teachers have for theirs.