The Special Education Teacher: A Trained Engineer

Honestly, when I first started out as a teacher in special education, I didn’t think I offered anything different to my students than what the mainstream teachers in my school could provide. I didn’t think I had any of that “magic pixie dust” that colleagues, parents, and administrators seemed to think I would be able to provide the day we wrote a student’s first IEP.  

And I was right, I didn’t have any such dust.

But what I did have, which I am only now realizing more than two decades after writing my first IEP, is a different kind of mindset. A different approach to what students need and how we would get there. I believe that effective special educators are trained to have the mindset of an engineer.

Engineers are problem solvers. Their job is to see a problem or a need and come up with a solution.  Throwing up their hands after a bridge collapses and saying, “I have no idea what happened or how to make it better” is not part of an engineer’s vocabulary.

I know this because I am part of a family of engineers. One of my brothers is a civil engineer, my other brother a nautical engineer. My husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law are mechanical engineers. I see the way they view problems, needs or issues, both at work or at home, and actively find solutions. When solutions fail, they offer another one.  

They don’t stop until they figure something out that works because that is their ONE job. To figure out a solution.

Mainstream teachers wear many hats…being a problem solver is, of course, one of them, but this is bundled with content, curriculum, classroom management, parental involvement, and test scores.  

Special education teachers, however, really have ONE job. We HAVE to figure out how to help the students on our caseloads be successful and reach their goals. We write specific goals that, yes, rest on the shoulders of all who work with them, but let’s be honest…We special ed teachers take our caseloads very seriously. These names on our caseloads are OUR babies who we feel a deep responsibility to nurture, grow, and figure out what it will take for them to be successful.

That is our one job.

And when one of our students fails their classes, struggles with behavior, or isn’t making progress, just like an engineer, we can’t throw our hands up and say, “I have no idea what happened or how to make it better.”

I am not suggesting a mainstream teacher doesn’t offer solutions but I know that differentiating instruction so ALL students succeed is one of the many areas they have to focus. For us, for our field of expertise, it’s not that we know more, or have more strategies up our sleeve, it’s that we HAVE been trained with the mind of an engineer who commits to figuring out why a bridge collapsed and will take all measures to ensure its built stronger and better next time.

While we know how valuable an engineering mindset is to our students with special needs, we can’t lose sight of how pivotal it is for ALL students. General educators and school leaders need to draw on special educators’ knowledge, skills, and mindsets when it comes to finding solutions so that all students succeed, no matter what! When special educators can be seen as a resource that benefits all students, we can start to tap into their thinking more strategically.

If a majority of students in a class are not mastering an objective, a special educator can consult with a general educator to facilitate a planning session of solutions-based, engineering-like thinking that starts to help a teacher recognize how to approach such challenges. When special educators model such mindsets, thinking, and problem-solving with general educators and school leaders, they can start to adopt this solutions-based approach as well. When special education teachers model positive, hopeful and engineering-like thinking to challenging situations, general educators and leaders can start to implement such approaches themselves.  

An engineer’s mind is what we special educators truly bring to the table and can benefit not just those on our caseload, but ALL students in our schools…don’t underestimate that power. For sure it is stronger than any magic pixie dust.


by Carrie Lupoli, Director of Program Operations, CT3 Education.

For further reading, check out Carrie’s article High Expectations, All Students, No Exceptions published in the “Differences, Not Disabilities” issue of ASCD Express.

Check out other CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, and building relationships with students and their families.
Category: Teaching