Rethinking Special Education: Insight from a teacher who decided to go back to school

Master of Education (Special Education) at Torrens University.

“What is important to me is education, for others, and myself. I am always trying to expand what I know in all areas of my life, and as a teacher, I love to see when my students have worked out something new.” – Janelle Connor, Master of Education (Special Education) student at Torrens University.

Around 16% of students in Australia now experience at least one type of learning condition. With this recent surge in diagnoses, the need for specialist teachers has never been greater. Yet, a recent report by the Australian Association of Special Education (AASE) found that at least one-third of all teaching staff in support and special education positions were unqualified. In NSW, this figure went up to an alarming 37%.

If we want to deliver quality education to all children, AASE suggests that we need to seriously rethink the way we’re delivering special education. They recommend that any teacher in a special education position should be required to hold a special education qualification. Plus, all teachers should be given some level of special education training, so that they’re adequately prepared for the demands of a diverse classroom.

These recommendations make sense on paper, but is it even possible to go back to study, and maintain an existing teaching career?

Janelle Connor (31) is a special education teacher, with a decade of experience. Although she already has a Special Education qualification, she decided it was time to update her knowledge. She recently enrolled in a Master of Education (Special Education) at Torrens University.

I wanted to stay up-to-date with educational research and practices. I studied special education ten years ago, and I wanted to see what had changed during this time. I’ve spent the last few years establishing new special education classes at my school.

Now that they are established, I have the time to up-skill myself. This course has the topics I wanted to learn more about, and I can apply them to my teaching straight away. I felt that there was nothing holding me back from returning to university, so I enrolled.”

Janelle chose to work in special education soon after her teaching career began. She enjoys the specific challenges that come with a diverse classroom, and she’s still just as passionate about her work ten years on.

“I particularly enjoy the challenges that the field of special education provides. I enjoy seeing how every student is different and needs to have the programs adjusted to support them. I really enjoy problem-solving and special education requires this skill in every situation.”

One of the most important lessons she’s learned from her career is the importance of community. She’s watched her kids thrive, with the co-operation and support of their family, friends and teachers.

“Special education really makes you focus on the student. You get to see how people in their lives are important, and how they play a role in their education. Relationships are very important. This can be with family, friends, colleagues or students. By having positive relationships in our lives, we can support and encourage each other. By sharing in each other’s highs and lows, we have a greater appreciation for our achievements, especially the big achievements that appear small to others.”

Janelle is still working full-time as a special education teacher while studying part-time. She chose to study online in order to be able to continue working. It’s not easy juggling work and study, but she’s managing well.

“It is important, if you are working full time while studying, to plan out when you can study throughout the week. It needs to be timetabled into your week, rather than trying to fit it in when you have the time. My favourite thing about this course is the flexibility of when I can do the coursework. If I’m having a busy week at work, I can study when I have the time.”

The AASE recommends all regular class teachers should have access to support from an appropriately qualified special educator. Janelle implemented an innovative staff support strategy in her school. The positive results demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach.

“My biggest achievement was establishing support classes at my current school. In the last two years, I have set up two new classes in a school that previously didn’t have special education classes. I implemented whole-school strategies, including integration, to ensure success. I trained the staff about how to create a positive, encouraging environment for all students. The students within the classes have improved dramatically during their time at this school.”

There are a number of different masters courses in special education available in Australia. It can be difficult to select the right course. Janelle reveals why she chose the Master of Education (Special Education) at Torrens University.

“Torrens offered subjects that are more future-focused then other online universities. The subjects are different from other universities, such as Introduction to Mental Health Conditions and Person First in Autism. I think as a new university, Torrens is trying to create courses that are fresh and current, focusing on people and how to support them in learning the content.

The coursework has also been very interesting, using real-life experiences to make it relevant and show us the impact of the learning. If you are interested in the subjects, it becomes easier to enjoy what you are learning and you’ll be more willing to put in the time.”

If you’re inspired by Janelle’s story, find out more about studying a Master of Education (Special Education) at Torrens University.

Master of Education

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