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It was supposed to be temporary. It was supposed to be a favor. It wasn’t supposed to change my life.

But it did.

I had agreed to sub as a paraprofessional on the condition that I didn’t end up in a special ed classroom. “I don’t know if I could handle that,” I confessed to the secretary 25 years ago. Fortunately for me, she completely ignored my trepidation and placed me right where I belonged.

Fast forward to October 2019 when I stood on stage and was named the Illinois Teacher of the Year ... for my work as a special education teacher.

I would like to say I now have the best job in the world, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. I have had the best job for the past 24 years. I have taught students with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, cognitive delays, and autism. My students may have had different labels, but they all have had significant needs. Much of the time, their needs have had nothing to do with education. There is their need to be respected, encouraged, and yes, even loved. There is their need for special attention, individualized instruction, and supports. Just like every other student, they have the need to communicate, share their voices, their ideas, and their importance.

I’m beyond excited that we have leadership in the State of Illinois that understands the value of my students. Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently proclaimed April 2019 Autism Awareness Month — and by doing so showed his commitment to these individuals and the many other individuals with special needs.

My job is tough, but it’s nothing compared to the difficulties my students face. I work with individuals who have been dealt a difficult hand — a world full of struggles and challenges. I watch them fearlessly navigate obstacles and yet maintain their excitement and continue to grow and flourish. The progress they make may seem small at times to an outsider, but it is anything but insignificant. Learning to say “hello,” “goodbye,” or “how are you?” means that they can fit in more easily in the outside world. Making and maintaining eye contact and having reciprocal conversations that include both parties comes naturally for most people.

Yet, my students must learn these skills and other important social skills. To independently function in this world, they need committed teachers who are trained to provide this specialized instruction. About one in 40 individuals are currently diagnosed with autism, with numbers on the rise, while the number of trained special education teachers continues to plummet. We are in crisis. My students are in crisis.

The number of students in Illinois identified with a disability that impacts their education hovers at 15 percent. However, special education remains one of the areas with the highest number of unfilled teaching positions. School districts in Illinois reported that more than 500 special education teaching positions went unfilled during the 2017-18 school year, accounting for more than a third of all teacher vacancies in the state. This means students like mine are given, if they are lucky, untrained long-term subs who quickly become burned out. I repeat: We are in crisis. My students deserve better.

As Illinois Teacher of the Year, I give presentations to colleges and universities across the state. I am always energized and encouraged when I speak to pre-service special education teachers because it gives me hope that those students who need the best teachers are going to get the best teachers. We need more of them and we need them now!

Make no mistake, my job is tough. It is also incredibly rewarding. You see, I work with students who maintain their individuality, their genuineness, their true love for others in the face of extraordinary challenges. I learn as much from them as they learn from me. I have become a better person because of them. I don’t have a job; I have a calling. I am a special education teacher.

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Susan Converse, a special education teacher at Edwardsville High School, is the 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year. She is the vocational training program coordinator for the high school’s student-run Tiger Den Coffee Shop. Students with disabilities carry out all aspects of the shop’s operations under her guidance.

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