01/11/2011 03:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Makes Special Education So Special?

On the first day of class each year, I tell my students to leave my class. I tell them to listen carefully, get what they need from me, and get out! Of course, they all look at me with confusion, and they wonder what in the world I am talking about, but as a special education teacher it is the best advice I can offer them.

So often, students get into special education because they need some additional supports to succeed in an academic environment, and this well-intentioned move unfortunately becomes a life sentence. However, assisting a student through their entire academic career should not be the mission of a special educator or of a child in special education. Instead, special education should function as an avenue for students to learn their strengths, how to use them, and then get back into the general education population.

I like to follow up my "Get Out" speech with an assessment of their strengths. The students sit and take a test that will highlight the ways in which they learn best, and then we sit and discuss ways to use those strengths at school. For example, a student that shows strength with rhythm and music might find that creating short songs or poems can help them to learn their vocabulary for English class and a formula for math class (did you know the quadratic equation can be set to the tune of "All Around the Mulberry Bush"?).

Another student that displays strength in athletics might find that making analogies between a basketball game and the American Revolution helps to raise his grade in history. In any case, the whole idea is that every student has the ability to be successful, they may just not know how to do it.

This is why we use the word "special" to define how we educate this particular population. It is not that they are learning less, or that their material is dumbed down, it is that they are learning alternative, special, ways to accomplish the same goals they would have in any other classroom.

The students in special education are there to learn how to cope with, and eventually overcome, any disabilities they may carry. I may have a student in my class for their entire high school career, or I may have them for a single semester, but regardless of how long I teach them I strive to prepare them for life outside of special education.

I will not always be there to help them when they need to write a cover letter, do their taxes, or prepare for an exam, but I can help them to better understand their talents and how to put them to good use. It is my hope that the students that go through my special education will gain the confidence they need to accomplish whatever they put their mind to, and the skills to back it up.

I want them to grow accustomed to being successful, something rare for my students, and eventually come to expect to overcome any challenge that comes their way. I want them to know that, although their paths may be different from those of their friends, it is no less valuable or worthy of respect. This is the true definition of special education.