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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Dear Everyone: Stop Calling Us "Specials".

Happy Music In Our Schools Month! If you know me well you know I am an idealist. I may sometimes go overboard caring a little too much about issues that don't truly need to be that big of a deal. And when it comes to music education advocacy, I am more fired up than ever during the month of March! But as much as people may want to roll their eyes at me I want you to hear me out: language matters. Labels matter. We need to change the terminology we use to refer to different types of elementary teachers and staff. 

In case you're not familiar with the US elementary school world, here's a brief summary of common terminology I hear:

  • "classroom teacher" refers to elementary teachers who teach multiple subjects to one group of children all year- a Kindergarten teacher, or a 4th grade teacher.
  • "specials teacher" refers to teachers who teach one subject to multiple groups of children- usually every class in the school- a music teacher, or a PE teacher.
I didn't have as big of an issue with the term "specials" when I started teaching. As I understand, the term came to be used not because our subject areas are "special" but because we, the one-subject teachers, "specialize" in a subject (unlike the 3rd grade teacher who teaches multiple subjects). But the reality is nobody thinks of it that way when they use the term "specials", and more and more it started to bother me the way the term perpetuated the idea that certain subjects were frills, not "core" subjects, and therefore disposable if budgets were too tight.

In an ideal world (here we go with ideals) I would love to just get rid of the constant need to distinguish between teachers and classes. There is already so much toxic perceived hierarchy within elementary staff, why not just call everyone exactly what they are (music teacher, 2nd grade teacher) and our classes exactly what they are (computer class, 5th grade class) and be done with it? But I know, the reality is sometimes there is a need to put us into categories, and listing out every single specific job title is way too tedious. 

Here's the best solution I've come up with to improve clarity of language and remove stigmatized terminology from our collective vocabulary:

  • "classroom teacher" should refer to anyone who teaches a class(es) as a group (art teacher, 1st grade teacher), to distinguish from teachers and staff who teach pull-out groups etc (social worker, speech language pathologist, instrumental music pullout lessons teacher)
  • "homeroom teacher" should refer to anyone who specializes in an age group rather than a subject area and teaches one group of students multiple subjects for the majority of those students' day (Kindergarten teacher, 5th grade teacher)- I prefer this over "grade level teacher" only because there are multi-age classes in some districts that would fall in this category
  • for teachers who specialize in a subject area but teach multiple whole classes (general music teacher, art teacher), I prefer an acronym that includes all the subjects taught. It works out conveniently for us in our district, since we have library media, art, music, and PE, to use the term "LAMP teacher". If a school had computer class in addition to those, the term could be "CLAMP", for example. 
I think it's important to expand the traditional definition of the term "classroom teacher" to include all teachers who teach whole classes, to subtly shift to the mindset that they are all classes and not "core classes" vs "extracurriculars" or "frills". I also think we need to move away from any variation of the word "special" to refer to any classroom teachers or classes because of the stigma it has undeniably created. Dropping those terms also allows for more clarity for districts like mine that have "specialists" who primarily work in teacher coaching, curriculum writing, etc like a math specialist or literacy specialist- save the "special" for them.

I know this may cause some controversy- I'm sure there are music teachers who don't have a problem with the term "specials" and don't feel they are treated like second class teachers in their buildings, and I'm sure there are many others who just don't think it's that big of a deal, or that changing our language will change the hierarchical treatment of elementary teachers and stigma against certain subjects. But we need to all get on board with this for the greater good, even if you don't perceive a negative impact in your specific building, and we have seen time and time again that our words do matter and the language we choose does affect our thoughts and perceptions and the thoughts and perceptions of the people who hear us. 

Stop calling us specials.


  1. Yes! For years, I, and my colleagues, have been treated like 'less than,' we didn't do that much, we only taught one subject, etc. We had all the duties (lunch, bus) while the 'classroom teachers' had none. It is defeating. Other teachers counted our minutes of prep time, our administrators gave 'classroom teachers' extra time for prep while we were expected to provide extra coverage for their classes. I finally left teaching.

    1. It is so demoralizing to work so hard and be treated like that. We as a profession have to find ways to work together to turn the tide before we lose more teachers!