In the Suburbs: Hoping to embark on a career in special education

For the past six years, I have been a teaching assistant and most recently a certified English teacher/paraprofessional in the Bridgeport Charter school where I work. While I have a contract, I am a contract employee and I am paid on a per-diem basis with no vacation or holiday salaries.

But this year, I learned from our principal of a great opportunity to cross certify and become a special education teacher. Of course, it was a long shot, because, once again, a Praxis examination for certification was in my way. However I learned that a full-time position might open for the fall of 2019 and if I passed the certification exam, the principal said he would consider me and felt I would be a good special education teacher.

At first, I chuckled and thought to myself, “Why would a senior guy, who should be sitting in some rocking chair, subject himself to a second Praxis exam in four years? A lot of my friends agreed and definitely felt I was “certifiable.”

But I come from a long line of non-rocking chair folks (my dad was busy until his death at 97 and my mom remained active in organizations until cancer ended her life at 90). So I moved ahead with registering for this Praxis exam, which covered completely new academic territory for me.

I also learned that I would be required to take the Pearson’s Foundations of Reading examination, considered by many in the field to be the undoing of even the best test takers. I decided not to register for that test until I was absolutely sure I had passed the Special Education Praxis, which I scheduled for July 9, just this past week. I originally wanted to take the exam in early June, but my tutoring and day-to-day work kept me from having the time to study the Praxis background and take the six tests in the companion test booklet.

From before the end of our school year until this past Tuesday when I arrived at 7:15 a.m. to register for the exam, I plowed through and nearly drowned in the language of special education, learned about the various laws that protect children with special needs and handicaps and began to understand the symptoms and behaviors of intellectual and emotional disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder, the Autism Spectrum and a host of other qualifiers for special education programs. I also better understood terms like antecedents (what happens before a student acts out) consequences of behavior and interventions, as well as independent education programs (IEPs).

What was particularly interesting to me was the critical role that parents must play in the the special education programs that involve their children and that many of these programs begin at a pre-school level and continue. What I didn’t realize was that parents, no matter what their cultural backgrounds are, must often wage a legal battle called due process if their child was denied access to a special education program in what is known as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). In addition, there were many practice questions about how schools must communicate with special education parents and the diverse cultural backgrounds of many parents.

I was brought up in that “just study harder, get better test grades and learn how to read generation.” But thankfully, my parents played an active role in getting me the extra help I needed in reading comprehension, math and other areas by forging a strong partnership with my elementary and high school. I was probably on the cusp a being a special education candidate, but “back in the day” few, if any, of these programs existed.

The test booklet put all of the key facts and more into perspective and the five practice examinations I attempted offered the range of practical application questions that might or might not be part of the actual examination. During our vacation by a family member’s pool in Virginia, I set aside at least an hour or more between swims to work on the tests. Thankfully, I got better and better as I moved along and since the family has a lot of teachers, they helped me with understanding areas like fine motor skills, contracts and interventions between special education teachers and students and particularly with how to handle students with emotional disabilities.

The last tips we were given at the back of the test booklet included the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, only reviewing certain sections of the background book and above all, accepting that we test takers have prepared as much as we could. So, of course, on the night before the Special Education Praxis, I was busily cramming, re-reading sections of the book, especially on various laws concerning a free and public education and the use of tests to label children of different cultures.

“How was the test?” you may ask.

By the rules of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), I cannot discuss the content of the exam. Let’s just leave things at I believed I was ready, I ate a great breakfast, I wasn’t nervous and I did my best.

Did I pass? I will remain guardedly hopeful. The scores won’t be available until early August, and then I’ll know if I will be moving toward certification and the permanent position I’d like. Meanwhile, I plan to be very busy for the rest of the summer to keep my mind off this latest challenge.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at