Teaching Children with Special Needs: It's a Lesson in Learning to Care and to LaughTeaching Children with Special Needs: It's a Lesson in Learning to Care and to Laugh

Teaching Children with Special Needs: It's a Lesson in Learning to Care and to Laugh

By now you may have heard of the teacher shortage. Not enough Elizabeth Hoovers (Simpsons reference for the non-animated TV types) to meet the demand. Now hear the predicament of Princeton's Eden Institute, a special-education school for students, ages 3 to 21, who have autism. The autism population is on the rise, so much so that even public schools are creating their own autism classrooms. "We get a lot of calls asking if we know of any available teachers," notes Carol Markowitz, director of educational services at Eden. "We say, no, if we knew of teachers we would be hiring them."

Markowitz worked for the past 28 years at Eden Institute. She started out teaching, but is now responsible for everything that goes on in the school, the day-to-day operation. She's been on the front lines of special education her entire career, since graduating from college with a bachelor's degree in psychology and going on to get her master's degree in special ed and New Jersey certifications as a teacher of the handicapped and a supervisor of instruction. She knows special ed.

"My mother, Ruth Horn, was a public-school teacher at New Brunswick High for 30 years," explains Markowitz. "Teaching requires an enormous commitment, whether regular ed or special ed. Our teachers bring data home and write progress reports. It's not a nine to five job where you leave it in the afternoon. Teachers who are successful at it are the ones who have that real work ethic to put as much time and effort into it as it's going to take."

Through the years, Markowitz has identified personality traits in special-ed teachers that have been a good match for this type of career. First and foremost, she says, you can't have a preconceived idea of how your day is going to go. "Part of doing this well is the ability to take things as they come," notes Markowitz. "If the child comes in and is having a hard day and crying a lot you have to be flexible. A great sense of humor helps, being able to laugh at yourself a little bit and to enjoy and appreciate the kids, whatever their problems may be." Many psychology majors, like Markowitz, will go into special ed because specialized teaching is a practical outlet for their talents and their studies. Other related professions that would put you in a special ed career are speech therapy and school psychology, which involves student testing and assessment.

Markowitz urges young people interested in special ed to get as much classroom work experience as possible. A great way to do so is to become a teacher's assistant working under a certified teacher, even before you graduate from college or grad school. Salaries for a teacher's aide are around $18,000 a year. Eden's starting salary for a certified special-ed teacher is $34,000 a year, about 10% lower than public school, where the student-to-teacher ratio is higher. Special ed teachers can work their way up to an annual salary of $80,000 to $90,000 a year. Teachers with master's degrees command higher salaries.

For most, however, it is not a career about the money. It's about the kids. "It's not the get-rich job working on Wall Street or working for a big corporation," admits Markowitz. "It's a rewarding job. A way to make a difference."