Case study: the specialist

When I decided to switch from mainstream English to full-time special needs teaching, reactions fell into two camps. There was the "completely bonkers" faction, who thought committing my career to children who were probably uneducable was career suicide. Others believed I was taking the academic equivalent of a rest-break. I obviously couldn't hack it in a "mainstream" classroom, so I had chosen the soft option of reading storybooks in small groups all day.

Both, of course, were wrong, but the negative reactions highlighted some of the tensions in choosing a career in special needs. Like most special needs teachers, I fell into it. Having a few free periods a week led to my taking a small literacy group, which led to an interest in how children learn and why they don't. This led to further support, a special needs responsibility point and, finally, a new job in another school as an assistant special needs co-ordinator.

The presumption that teaching a small group of children with special needs is not intellectually stimulating is insulting to the pupils and the care that goes into building an individual programme. Children with special educational needs are as fascinating, quirky, humorous, cantankerous and delightful as any A-level students. The kind of experiences they have had in mainstream education often make them sensitive and insightful about school, and life.

The assumption that, for someone with a first-class degree who had taught English successfully at all levels, special needs was some kind of in-school sabbatical also shows how little is understood about the multi-faceted role of special needs teachers. I chose this area for the intellectual challenge. I can think of no other job in education that demands excellence in both "sides" of the school career structure - academic and pastoral. Since I took on the role, my LEA has paid for further qualifications, and having completed a diploma this year, I am moving on to a further qualification, which I hope will lead to an MA. When I go on Inset or to meetings, I am frequently one of the youngest in the room (I'm 27).

Young teachers do not see special needs as an obvious career path, and this image problem means much of our work is little investigated, or misunderstood. Too many teachers "find" special needs by accident, and are surprised when they discover its diverse, stimulating demands on the teacher. The PGCE gives aspiring teachers too little time to acquaint themselves with the needs of SEN children and there is no PGCE I know of that qualifies teachers to work exclusively with SEN children. As yet, it is not a distinct subject specialism in teacher training. It should be. Special needs experts must have an in-depth knowledge of a range of needs and how to meet them. They must be skilled in co-ordinating large operations and initiatives across the school, they need diplomatic and people skills, and their administration and organisational skills must be superb.

Moving into special needs was the best career decision I have made. When I finally apply for a job as a Senco, I want my qualifications to say loudly and clearly that I did not come to this by accident. "But you have no marking to do" is the usual refrain of traditional subject teachers who think teaching a 14-year-old to read is somehow easy. I hold up my hands: I have very little marking, and no, I don't miss it. Of course, there are other pressures - pressures that make me wish for the simplicity of settling down on the sofa with a tube of Pringles to mark 30 versions of "Juliet's diary".

Like all good teaching, special needs teaching is thought-provoking, exciting, and frustrating. Schools are diverse places and it's time we recognised the potential of diversity in our teachers as well.

Gemma Warren is an assistant Senco at a north London comprehensive and a columnist in Friday magazine

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