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The breaking point for Elizabeth Orme came in 2016 when she found herself telling a family that their child would be getting a new special-education teacher — for the third time.

The student should not have to readjust that often, thought Orme, then director of special education at Twin Cities Academy, a charter school in St. Paul. The turnover pointed to problems in special education that were driving burned-out teachers from the field.

That's when Orme developed the idea for Creatively Focused, a Mendota Heights-based organization that supports special-education teachers with a web-based platform that offers resources and connections.

Its software can help them organize and schedule the massive, legally mandated paperwork that comes with the job. Right away, a handful of Minnesota school districts wanted to use it, soon joined by special-education programs around the country. The organization now works with more than 100 schools, and has won multiple awards.

Some districts are starting to use it for general-education teachers, too. Orme is looking ahead toward a future where Creatively Focused could expand its membership to workers in health care and other fields.

We asked Orme to tell us more about how Creatively Focused helps special educators. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: What was working as a special-education teacher like for you?

A: Within the first three months, I felt burned out. I didn't understand how it was sustainable. I found myself on a path to being a special-education director and administrator, and then I watched all the burnout happen around me.

Each person I hired, they'd come to me and they'd say, 'I want to do this, but I feel like I can't.' They were working 60- to 70-hour weeks. They were exhausted. In two to three years, they'd walk out the door because it was just unsustainable.

So I went to my office and started writing on a whiteboard. I just said, if I didn't have all the red tape around me, if we didn't have these systems the way that they were working, how would I do this differently? How would I make sure that these teachers could get the support that they needed to feel like they could sustain the job?

I thought right away: Well, I'll just try it out and I'll see if a couple districts want to think about it differently, if they want to consult, talk it through and figure out some new way of supporting special-ed teachers.

Within one month, I had [multiple] Minnesota districts that were interested, and I literally googled how to hire my first employee, and that is where it Creatively Focused started.

Our platform really is a single spot where special educators can come in and get exactly what they need, when they need it. They have a ton of paperwork, a lot of deadlines, so our technology supports that end, and it also embeds all of the learning to be able to do it frequently. It brings the workflow management and the embedded learning.

Q: I assume special educators go into that field knowing that there will be certain challenges that don't exist in general-education classrooms. What weren't you expecting?

A: Most often it's the workload or the paperwork. I think that's the first thing that people say, because what is the most different from becoming a general-education teacher is that you have an incredible amount of paperwork that's legally driven, that's regulated by the state and by your district.

If you don't do it the right way, there's this feeling of fear, like, "What if I mess this up? I'm not just jeopardizing my work and my career, but I'm also impacting the kids' ability to get the education and the services that they need." So it's filled with pressure.

Beyond that, most of it is the lack of connection to other teachers who have a day that looked like theirs. My first year, I had another special-ed teacher who had been doing the job for years. We had two totally different days. We served different kinds of kids. We had nothing to talk about, but everyone around us would say, "You two should talk. You do the same job." Well, we didn't do anything really the same. And I didn't have anybody.

That feeling of isolation and not having connection to people who understand your job, to people who can answer your questions, to people you can learn from, is extremely isolating.

These educators coming in, especially with special education, they're driven by their [sense of] purpose, "This is the work I'm meant to do." So they keep sticking with it because they're there for a huge reason.

And then all of a sudden the next year, they get assigned to a totally different group of disabilities, and they have to start all over again, and they're relearning all over again. But again, it's this relentless commitment to wanting to support students with special needs that drives them.

Q: So the challenges are more to do with just the structure of the job, things like paperwork and hours, as opposed to challenges involving the students themselves or behavioral things.

A: There's a lot of talk about the behaviors they're facing in the classroom, and a lot of talk about larger class sizes and all of those pieces.

But I think when we really drill down to it, they're less worried about the more work they need to do around solving a behavior challenge than they are about the stuff that's really not directly impacting kids.

Q. Is Creatively Focused all about practical support for things like that, or is there also an emotional support component?

A. Within the technology there are multiple opportunities for different staff to be connected to different people within our organization or even from our team.

So a good example is someone in a rural district might not have another teacher that has a day that looks like theirs. They might not have an instructional coach in their district, so in that case they may be receiving coaching from our team because we provide those coaches to the district. Or they might be getting support by being connected to other educators that have a day that looks like theirs, really across the country.

Two people who have a day that looks just like each other can actually say what's working for them and know that the information they're getting back and forth actually applies to their job. So we're driving that opportunity for connection and collective genius to happen within the platform.

Q: Are the numbers of special-ed students increasing proportionate to numbers of students overall?

A: The number continues to increase. A lot of that is a combination of overall increased amount of disability, overall increased amount of awareness around disabilities and better systems being put in place to evaluate and identify students with disabilities.

More and more is becoming protected under IDEA [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], and so all of our school districts are working under federal law and state law when it comes to supporting students with special needs. And the crisis we have is, you have students who are protected under federal and state law to be receiving specific specialized instruction from a person who's qualified to teach it. And we simply don't have enough of them.

Q: So more students have disabilities, or more are being diagnosed with disabilities, or both?

A: You could find an argument for both. What I will say is that we have more awareness now than we did even 10 years ago. If we look at it, we were under-identifying significantly. So now we're seeing more things like ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] diagnoses much higher than they used to be. ADHD is a qualifying condition that could get you special-education services, potentially.

Q: What kind of feedback have you been getting?

A: The biggest thing that we're hearing right now is appreciation for our focus on the adults. Education is all about the kids, and I think we all would argue that we're all here because we all want what's best for kids. We know that if we don't have really incredible adults in the picture, we will never see the results that we want to see with kids. We're partnering with districts to say we can solve the big problems with you. Because education is our jam.