Managed chaos: An ethnographic study of special education teacher practice

Lisa A Ferrelli, University of Rhode Island


Ethnographic methods were used to explore special education teacher practice. The overarching study question was--how does being a special education teacher manifest itself in the broader world of elementary general education? Several secondary questions, developed to illustrate special education teacher practice, contributed to the work. Special education teacher practice is characterized by a number of concerns that create tension in special education and in the interaction between special education and general education. The recognition of a similar educational mandate--understanding what students know and need to know as educational planning occurs--emphasizes that the task of both disciplines is essentially the same. Yet, a separate special education language begins to emerge. Inclusion (or more precisely, the degree of inclusion) occurs on a teacher-by-teacher basis. All of the teachers noted that there are teachers who are open and teachers who are less open. The sense of invitation into the general education classroom was important to each of the teachers. There is some sense of general education teachers having some degree of power over who gets into their classrooms. The teachers interviewed for this study experienced varying degrees of integration into their school communities. All held their students to high expectations of learning. All expressed concerns about keeping pace with the general education curriculum. The data expanded both the number of roles as well as the scope of the roles that a special education teacher might regularly play. The data demonstrate the difficulties in providing standards-based education to students with disabilities and provide some understanding into the students' attempts to impact their educational environments. Tension, chaos, and ultimately separation are identified as important themes. The tensions reported by the teachers participating in the study are often realized in a context of chaos . Special education's attempts to integrate itself into the general education system tended to intensify both the level of potential chaos and the separation between the two systems. The model developed to describe special education teacher practice is one of "managed chaos ." Recommendations addressing these tensions and suggestions for future research are offered.

Recommended Citation

Lisa A Ferrelli, "Managed chaos: An ethnographic study of special education teacher practice" (2007). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3298368.