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They wear nice skirts and tops and I wear jeans

I went to a weekend conference last week and took the opportunity to wear a suit, as I thought it would be appropriate; after all, I spend my working week in jeans and washables, so to wear a dry-clean-only suit in a child-free environment was a rare opportunity. The trouble was that all the mainstream teachers at the conference were dressed in jeans; which is understandable, given that they'd been smartly dressed all week, it was the weekend and so jeans seemed appropriate for them. Once again, I stuck out like a sore (but very well attired) thumb.

It was interesting to meet mainstream teachers. Our job descriptions all say "teacher", but how different our occupations are. I was speaking to an art teacher from a girls' grammar school who had no behaviour problems in her classes or children with any learning difficulties, and whose main worry seemed to be the parents who regarded art as not a proper subject for study at A-level. Another worked in an inner-city comprehensive that boasted 16 native languages among its pupils. They had troubled children with anger management problems, autistic children lost in the system, bright children who needed extending and few teaching assistants. I couldn't imagine teaching such a range of pupils without the support I'm used to.

Another difference was how mainstream teachers see themselves as teachers of a particular cohort. "I'm a Year 6 teacher," they say. Or, "I'm an early years teacher". In special education it's possible - and indeed common - to teach any age group from three to 19 and to move around during your career.

Our specialisms seem to be associated with the types of learning difficulties we encounter rather than the ages of the children in our charge. So we say: "I teach children with autismemotional difficulties hearing impairmentssevere learning difficulties." The Government says that all teachers should be teachers of children with special educational needs, but how are they supposed to be prepared for that? It doesn't happen during teacher training; our most recent newly qualified teacher had about a day's training in special needs.

So we specialise. They wear nice skirts and tops and I wear jeans; they worry about Sats, I worry about nappy macerators; they do detention duty, I do bus duty; they speak to their parents about options, I speak to mine about bedtime routines; they want the very best for their children and for them to achieve their maximum, and I want... the same. Maybe our job descriptions are correct in their commonality. Essentially, the job is the same: grammar school art teacher or PMLD specialist, we all want our pupils to do well and be happy. And our jobs, whether we're wearing suits or jeans, are about developing relationships with children and getting the best out of them.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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