When Compassion and Hope Aren’t Enough: Lessons on action and advocacy from a former special education teacher

As a blogger and writer for DMMB, we plan content months in advance.  So several months ago I had decided to write an article titled “What I Learned From Being a Special Education Teacher” because March is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, but then last month our nation was witness to yet another tragic lose of lives in a school setting.  Like so many others, I have spent countless hours reflecting and thinking about that incident; saddened and upset by the reckless act of another human.  My heart hurts for those affected.  And it brings me back to my time as a teacher… as a special education teacher and what I learned.  

I could talk about the many life lessons I learned from being a Special Education teacher.  I could list out the amazing attributes of the students I spent my days with and how they changed who I was as person. But the most important thing I learned is the need to take action and to be an advocate.  And now more than ever our country and our world needs action and advocacy.  


When I began my adventure as a teacher, my heart called me to work with students with special needs.  I felt they needed a voice; I felt they needed someone who cared.  My passion for these children and their learning journey was undeniable as I felt compelled to prove that these students were worthy of the best education possible… and I was devoted to giving that to them.  I was determined to show that a learning disability or special need did not mean that learning and growing were unattainable.  Settling for status quo was not for me; nor for them.  What I was not prepared for were the challenges I would face along the way.  

Day in and day out these amazing compassionate students came to school ready and eager to learn. Each day they entered the school with a smile and zest for life that many teachers (and humans) seemed to lack.  They were excited, they were happy, they were innocent.  For seven years I watched my students showcase resilience in their fight for education, they demonstrated compassionate to others on the playground when other students walked away, they showed perseverance in their learning, because it was hard… that is the ugly truth of learning disabilities. 

I gained huge amounts of compassion and empathy for my students, but you know what, empathy and compassion do not make change.  No amount of love and support was going to make the changes I felt were needed in my school and in the lives of my students.  Having compassion, love, resilience, determination, courage, faith, hope, empathy are all amazing human qualities (all of which I learned from and saw demonstrated by my students), but they do not make change.  

Action makes change.  Advocacy makes change.  

Too often students with disabilities are perceived as a group of students who need “fun and exciting experiences for learning” or students who need ” an environment protected from the hard realities of life.”  No, they need dedicated and innovative teachers who are willing to challenge them and guide them.  They need educators who see them like every other child who is capable and able to learn.  But I was never going to change the mindset if I stayed quiet in my classroom.  I had a voice, and instead of using it to preach compassion and hope, it was time to use it to preach transformation and change.  Each day I watched my students struggle to gain, sometimes, basic knowledge and education and it was clear that compassion and hope were not going to be the things that changed lives.  Action was.  Advocacy was.  

This lesson took years to learn, but over time I began to see that if I wanted to achieve a BIG change or make a REAL difference in these students lives I had to ACT.  I had to be the voice of ADVOCACY for students who did not have a voice.  So I did.  Sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  But I did not stay quiet hoping and wishing for change.  I ACTED.  I ADVOCATED.  It was hard to stand up for something I felt strongly about when the system seemed to say something different, but I knew it was the only way to see the change. 

So in this time of turmoil in our country, the lessons from being a special education teacher are echoing in my ears.  These lessons were not just about change in the classroom.  These lessons were about change in my life, in the lives of those around me, in the lives of humans.  Be compassionate and have empathy, that makes you a good human.  ACT and ADVOCATE those make you a leader of change.

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