Prioritizing the needs of special education students

Respecting the staff who serve them

By Jamaya Newton 

Special education plays a vital role in catering to the unique needs of students, ensuring they receive tailored support for their educational journey. Despite its importance, the field encounters challenges, including high turnover rates, persistent understaffing and a need for increased awareness.  

Working in this field, I’ve witnessed the challenges and successes of these programs. In this article we will explore the experiences of two professionals in our public schools, gaining insights into their work. Their narratives highlight the importance of prioritizing and actively safeguarding their mental health and well-being in the demanding field of special education. 

A passion for the work 

Meet Sara Fernando, a special education teacher at Bayberry Elementary School in the Watchung School District. With 11 years of experience, Fernando currently teaches in a self-contained classroom, specializing in autism spectrum disorder.  

“Kindness is such a big part of teaching students on the autism spectrum,” Fernando says. “People have to be kind enough to teach them.” 

Many mental health and behavioral health professionals enjoy their work; however, this job isn’t easy. Fernando recounts her experiences with difficult behaviors in the classroom, such as physical and verbal aggression, elopement (leaving or escaping areas), property destruction and tantrums. How does she continue to show up for her kids every day?  

“Leave school at school,” Fernando advises. “Completely forget that day existed. Lean on your team. My husband is my biggest teammate.”  

Setting boundaries 

Fernando urges new teachers to set boundaries and constraints to offset burnout.  

“My first two years of teaching I was at school until 9 p.m.,” Fernando remembers. “Do not do that. If it does not have a deadline it can wait until tomorrow.”  

Fernando encourages taking a break, when necessary. 

 “I had to take the summer off [from this kind of work],” Fernando says. “I had to work in a job that had nothing to do with children. Take a break. Make little adjustments to make the next year easier.” 


Fernando is an advocate for inclusion.  

“I am very big on inclusivity,” Fernando says. “Every child needs positive peer models, whether they have a disability or not. We expose them to their peers and work on those skills.”  

This may include participation in specials such as physical education, art, music and so forth. Unfortunately, districts look at inclusivity differently, and this crucial exposure is lacking in some public schools. In others, special area teachers are not given the support they need to be successful with students who have special needs.  

Fernando explains that for her students, even having lunch and recess with their general education peers is necessary exposure for learning how to function with others when eating, socializing, playing and other day-to-day interactions.  

“They should not be separated all the time,” Fernando says. “In real life they are not separated. They go to the same grocery stores, libraries and banks with the general public. So, it all starts in school.” 

No such thing as a typical day 

There is no such thing as a “typical day” in a special education classroom. The responsibilities of a special education teacher go beyond the norm. Daily schedules focus on routine and occupational skills (toileting, teeth brushing, dressing, etc.), as well as modified academic learning sessions.  

Fernando often teaches multiple grade levels in one classroom—typically at least three—with different education levels and behavior plans.  

“No day looks the same by any means,” Fernando says.  

She reflects on becoming like a second parent to the children she works with; a responsibility that she is honored to partake in. But she knows that such a responsibility is not an easy one. 

 “Support is the largest reason why many teachers end up leaving the field,” Fernando says. “It is not universal for teachers to get adequate prep times, access to behaviorists and other needed supports.” 

 Fernando also believes that educating all school staff about what special education looks like “would make the world of difference.”  

Advocating for students and adults 

Meet Angela Terruso, a specialized instructional assistant in Washington Township, Gloucester County, with 15 years of experience in special education. Terruso currently serves as the president of the Washington Township Schools Support Services Personnel Association, actively advocating for improved working conditions and increased budget allocation in support of special education staff and programs.  

“I’ve spent so much time helping these kids,” Terruso says. “It’s time to help the adults now.”  

As WTSSSPA President, Terruso extends her commitment to the teachers and educational support professionals who play a vital role in the success of students with special needs. 

Terruso explains misconceptions related to her field, including pay. She emphasizes that special education classrooms have different needs than other classrooms, including the hiring of behavioral support staff.  She recalls when her district brought several special education programs back into the district with salaries below $21,000.  

Hiring practices, Terruso notes, are a major contributor to the high turnover of support staff.  

“We can’t keep people, and we know why,” Terruso says. 

To address understaffing, many districts now rely on outsourcing staff work to private, for-profit companies. This leads to a revolving door. Subcontracted staff sometimes receive what appears on the surface to be better pay for equal or less experience. They receive little to no training from the school district.  

“We felt as though our jobs were being threatened,” she says. 

Terruso is saddened that some amazing staff members felt they had no choice.  

“Special needs children need consistency,” Terruso continues. Consistency allows them to thrive and stay on track with their goals. Change is not easy for her students. She fears that these hiring practices negatively impact special needs children, and retaining qualified staff is a key solution. 

Remembering self-care 

Regarding mental health, Terruso shares a helpful tip: “Somebody once told me that self-care is not selfish. It took me a while to figure that out. You need to take care of you.”  

Terruso takes pride in her job and understands that showing up is half of the battle. She advises others to communicate with their colleagues about the trials and tribulations of working with special needs students.  

“Talk to your co-workers because they are going through the same thing,” Terruso advises. “It’s not complaining; it’s venting.” 

Terruso insists that respect, training and better salaries are three key ingredients to improving special education. In Washington Township, subcontracted employees are referred to as “clinicians,” unlike district support staff.  

“We are not even called paraprofessionals in this district, we are called assistants,” she explains.  

Terruso views this as a respect issue and she calls for better relationships between administration and staff. She believes that improved training should be provided for all staff to better serve this community, and she seeks to improve the working conditions of her colleagues. 

“Sometimes administrators have been out of the classroom for so many years, they don’t understand,” Terruso says. “If we can change the way we treat paraprofessionals, they will want to do their best for these kids.” 

In special education, dedicated individuals emerge as unsung heroes. These heroes prioritize the well-being of children, striving for inclusivity and visibility for those with special needs. Recognizing the indispensability of these programs, it becomes imperative to extend our respect and unwavering support to the professionals who selflessly serve our community. 

Jamaya Newton is a secretary in the Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. Prior to joining NJEA staff, Newton was a registered behavior technician specializing in autism. She can be reached at