The image of the special education teacher as reflected in drawings made by teachers in training in Israel


  • Dafna Regev,

  • Tamie Ronen

Address for correspondence:  Dafna Regev  University of Haifa – Art Therapy  Haifa  Israel  Email:


This study, by Dr Dafna Regev of the University of Haifa and Professor Tamie Ronen of Tel Aviv University, examines the perceived image of the special education teacher as portrayed in the drawings of Jewish and Arab student teachers in Israel. Of the 187 female participants in this study, 82 were from the Jewish sector and 105 from the Arab sector; they were all at varying stages in their training. The drawings were analysed by three art therapists, and differences found between Jewish and Arab perspectives and between perspectives across the training programme are discussed. This article raises questions about the relationship between attitudes and behaviours and the perspectives of future special education teachers.

The work of the special education teacher can be considered exceptionally complex, intensive and demanding and the special education teacher's relationship with students has been described as complicated in terms of its intensity, intimacy, vulnerability and responsibility (Farber, 1991; Forlin, Jobling & Carroll, 2001). Indeed, it has been argued that the complexity of teaching, in general, and in special education in particular, stems from its definition as an endeavour that involves working with people within the confines of a given reality (Hillel Lavian, 2008). Preparing students to work in the field of special education is an important component of the teacher training process; thus, in addition to educational content and skills, the training programme addresses the issue of reality-based attitudes and realistic expectations relevant to the field of special education. Many students are drawn to the field by an overly idealistic view of the teacher's role and a desire to change the world. The more realistic the students' perception of the teacher's role, the more likely they are to perform this role effectively.

This study examined the manner in which teacher trainees from the Jewish and Arab sectors in Israel perceived the role of the special education teacher. It is important to note that the students' perceptions are not derived solely from their approach to children in the special education classroom, but also from their more general attitudes towards people with special needs.

Society's attitude to children with special needs has changed substantially between the second half of the previous century and today. This change is reflected in the shift from a policy that identified these children and placed them in separate frameworks distanced from the mainstream framework. Between the early stages of this newer period and the current period, in which students with special needs are integrated in mainstream frameworks (Lazer, 2000), there have been numerous studies evaluating students' attitudes towards children with special needs. In their study, Lazer and Avisar (2000) found that compared to an earlier period, teachers were generally more willing to include students with special needs in their mainstream classes; however, the same study also found that teachers were less inclined to include children the more pervasive they perceived the children's disability to be.

Recent studies have examined the social and familial attitudes that various populations in Israel demonstrate towards people with disabilities. Relevant to the current research are studies that observed these attitudes specifically in Arab societies that are transitioning from the framework of a collective society to a nuclear one. Thus, for example, a study conducted by Reiter, Mar'I & Rosenberg (1986) found that the responses of most of the participants in their sample demonstrated a negative attitude towards individuals with disabilities. A more recent study (Karni & Reiter, 2010) examined the attitudes of middle school teachers in the Arab sector regarding the inclusion of students with disabilities and found conflicting attitudes. On the one hand they identified a high degree of commitment (73% of participants) to the notion of including students with disabilities in the mainstream classroom, while on the other hand the teachers reported that the ‘regular’ students do not benefit from this inclusion. The most important differentiating factor between those in favour of inclusion and those against it was the experience of prior training in the field of special education. Those who had been specifically trained in special education tended to favour inclusion, compared to those teachers trained in the field of general education.

So far, this introduction has related to studies examining people's attitudes towards people with disabilities; however, several prominent researchers (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1974; Jordan, 1971) distinguish between attitude and behaviour. Accordingly, attitude expresses a tendency, expressed only verbally, to act in a certain way, whereas behaviour refers to the act itself. Often there is agreement between a person's cognitive, affective and behavioural components, yet there are situations in which they do not correspond. Thus, for example, after reviewing 28 studies published between 1958 and 1995 on the attitudes of teachers regarding the inclusion of students with special needs in their classrooms, Lazer and Avisar (2000) concluded that the studies mainly reflected attitudes and opinions rather than acts. In an attempt to address the potential gap between attitude and behaviour, this study examined the perceived image of the special education teacher as reflected in the drawings of students who were in the process of training to become special education teachers.

In asking students to draw their image of the special education teacher, this study offers a unique advantage. Given that drawing is considered a projective technique that can provide insight into the subject's inner world, it may be assumed that the use of projective drawings will reveal more than might have emerged by relying solely on verbally expressed attitudes.

Over the centuries, art has served as a medium for self-expression (Guttmann & Regev, 2004; Vardi, 1996). This type of expression is an integral part of human development, starting from an early age. Edwards (1986) claimed that drawing parallels spoken language, describing it as the simplest non-verbal language, and noting that art does not require grammatical rules to transmit feelings and thoughts. In view of the previously mentioned distinction between verbal expressions (attitudes) and true feelings, thoughts and desires (and, occasionally, actions expressed through behaviour), it is helpful to differentiate primary (more primitive, undeveloped, relatively less organised) processes, which typically are expressed in the creative endeavour, from secondary (more developed, ‘realistically oriented’) processes, which typically are expressed verbally (Noy, 1999). It is argued that the development of these two types of processes occurs separately rather than hierarchically, and in each, emotions, thoughts and desires are handled differently (Kris, 1952).

Perusal of the research literature on drawing and its use for testing and assessment reveals two major investigative approaches to drawing: one considers the art of drawing from the context of art therapy (Cohen, Hammer & Singer, 1988; Cohen & Cox, 1995; Feder & Feder, 1988; Ravas-Shenhar, 1999; Snir, 2006) and tends to follow the phenomenological approach, and the other considers it from the context of psychology, which considers drawing a projective technique (Harrower, Thomas & Altman, 1975; Lev-Wiesel & Shvero, 2003; Rollins, 2005).

In one version of the projective test, subjects are asked to draw their own image. Several studies have demonstrated the ability to differentiate between deaf and hearing subjects (Lev-Wiesel & Yosipov-Kaziav, 2005), and between subjects with a stutter and control group participants (Lev-Wiesel, Shabat & Tsur, 2005) based on subjects' self-drawings. A different version of the projective technique uses children's drawings to evaluate a long-term process, in this case, the ongoing intervention programmes in which these children were participating (Hamama & Ronen, 2009; Ronen, 2000). The current study may be considered in the latter context, as it uses drawings of students involved in an intervention process, namely, a self-development and training process that will help them become special education teachers. Thus, the current study also relates to the subject of professional identity development. Participants in this study were asked to draw an image of the special education teacher, as perceived from their own perspectives, as trainees intent on fulfilling this role in the future. On the basis of research by Karni and Reiter (2010), we believed that students from the Arab sector might have a different perception of the special education teacher from that of students from the Jewish sector, and that furthermore the perceptions of the two groups of students would be altered in the course of the training process. Keeping this in mind, the drawings of students from the Jewish and the Arab sectors were collected at various stages of the three-year training programme.

The following research hypotheses were formulated:

  • 1The majority of the drawings would reflect a positive attitude towards the profession being studied.
  • 2Differences would be found between drawings collected from students enrolled in different years of the training programme.
  • 3Differences would be found between drawings collected from the Arab students and drawings collected from the Jewish students.



This study included 187 female students studying in a training programme for special education teachers, at either Tel-Hai College or the Sakhnin Teacher Training College, in Israel. We chose to concentrate on women because there are very few men enrolled in teacher training programmes in Israel. Participants' ages ranged from 19 to 43 (M = 22.786, SD = 3.329); 82 were Jewish and 105 were Arab students. Participants were sampled from various stages of the three-year programme: 58 were first-year students, 69 were second-year students, and 60 were third-year students. Table 1 presents participants according to both nationality and year of study.

Table 1. Participants according to nationality and year of study
Year of study Nationality1st year2nd year3rd yearTotal


Students received a blank page with the following instructions: ‘Use this page to draw the image of the special education teacher as you perceive it (your drawing can be figurative or abstract).’


Over the course of the second semester of the 2009–2010 academic year, the researcher entered into special education classes and asked students to follow the above-mentioned instructions. Once drawings had been collected from the entire sample, the researcher asked three art therapists to:

  • 1divide up the drawings according to content issues that they identify, and sort them according to themes;
  • 2select four or five major groups (with the greatest number of drawings);
  • 3to assign a name to each of the selected groups, and mark each drawing according to the group to which it belongs.

Table 2 presents the distribution of drawings according to each therapist's thematic categories and relevant demographics (sector and year of studies) of students who created the drawings.

Table 2. Distribution of drawings according to each therapist's thematic categories and relevant demographics of students who created the drawings
 HeartGrowthAttachmentSunHuman figureSchoolNatureRationalism
  1. Notes: A = Arab sector. J = Jewish sector.

Therapist I1st year211312312        
2nd year38322522        
3rd year7392418        
Therapist II1st year  3211252521    
2nd year  41141111175    
3rd year  1013151772    
Total  1726673334991    
Therapist III1st year16  48  213  6341
2nd year21  410  710  10481
3rd year44  132  65  21222
Total711  2120  1528  379144


Observation of the findings in Table 2 reveals that there were four categories that were identified by all three art therapists. Table 3 presents a summary of these categories and the sector and year distribution within each category.

Table 3. Distribution of drawings according to therapists’ thematic categories and relevant demographics of students who created the drawings
 Jewish sectorArab sector
1st year2nd year3rd year1st year2nd year3rd year
Human figure13–2513–255–72–57–116–17

The thematic category that was most widely agreed upon by the art therapists consulted in this study was termed ‘nature’ by one therapist, while the other two referred to two categories: ‘growth’ and ‘sun’. The sun, a source of warmth and energy, promotes development and growth. Growth can be considered a process of change and development, suggesting an approach that believes in change and improvement or, similarly, in these drawings, growth may be related to the teacher's significant role as an enabler of growth and development. This approach highlights the teacher's input beyond the function of providing love and a sense of containment. Interestingly, this theme is more prevalent among the Arab students' than among the Jewish students' perceptions, and even among the Arab students there is variance, as most of those who expressed the theme of nature in their drawings were third-year students. Figure 1 presents sample drawings pertaining to the nature theme.

Figure 1.

Examples of drawings pertaining to the category of nature

The second thematic category that was agreed upon by the three art therapists was termed ‘attachment’. This theme was prevalent among the drawings of students from both sectors and at various stages of the training programme. The fact that attachment and touch are recognised as contributing factors in the interaction between teachers and learners and that, in this case, this recognition cuts across cultures and levels of training is undoubtedly worth noting. Examples of drawings pertaining to this category are presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Examples of drawings pertaining to the category of attachment

The third theme upon which the art therapists agreed was termed the ‘human figure’. Here, the figure may represent the role of the ideal teacher in the field. Drawings in this category appeared slightly more frequently among the Jewish students, yet it is noticeable also among the Arab students. Interestingly, while its prominence is found to decrease gradually from the first year to the third year among the Jewish students, the inverse tendency can be seen among the Arab students, such that its prominence increases as the Arab students advance in their training. Figure 3 presents a sample of drawings pertaining to this thematic category.

Figure 3.

Examples of drawings pertaining to the category of the human figure

The fourth theme selected by only two of the art therapists was termed ‘heart’. The heart typically represents the source of emotions, and in drawings it is interpreted to indicate warmth, affection and emotion. In a trend similar to that noted for the theme of the human figure, here too the theme of the heart appeared frequently among the Jewish students but decreased gradually from the first to the third year of studies, whereas it was slightly less prominent among Arab students, but increased in frequency the more advanced the students' stage of training. Figure 4 presents a sample of drawings pertaining to this thematic category.

Figure 4.

Examples of drawings pertaining to the category of the heart


The current study investigated the formation and essence of professional identity of students training to become special education teachers. Students were asked to draw the special education teacher from their perspective, that is, as students in the process of preparing for the same role. Drawings were then collected from the students, who were at various stages of training and from either the Jewish or the Arab sector in Israel. The following discussion focuses on the themes that emerged from the drawings, in relation to the research hypotheses posed earlier.

Drawings that reflect a positive attitude towards the profession

The majority of the drawings reflected a positive attitude towards the profession and towards children with special needs. Hillel Lavian (2008), in her study involving veteran special education teachers, reported that her findings indicated that teachers had chosen this profession out of a sense of idealism, intent on ‘saving the world’ or at least confident in their ability to commit and contribute to this field. In another study, which focused on students training to become special education teachers, Hillel Lavian (2009) found that approximately half of the study's participants indicated a belief that working in the field of special education was more significant than work in mainstream education. All participants agreed, however, that if one is interested in education, then certainly the field of special education is more meaningful and rewarding. Interviewees in this study expressed a desire to help these children, to contribute positively to their well-being and to forge meaningful relationships with them.

The four themes that emerged from the drawings in the current study – nature, attachment, human intervention and the heart – certainly express emotions similar to those found among trainees investigated in previous studies. These emotions may be characteristic of the idealism expressed by trainees who are starting a new career and who have yet to cope with the more complex issues that are encountered later in the course of professional development.

Shifting from an idealised view (first-year students) to a more sober understanding (third-year students) of the complex student–teacher relationships

Findings of the current study indicated that a shift could be noted in students' attitudes towards two themes, namely, those of the human figure and the heart. As mentioned, there was an interesting contrast between the attitudes of the Jewish and the Arab students to these themes: while Jewish students used fewer idealistic expressions as they progressed in the training process, the Arab students' use of idealistic expressions increased as they progressed in their studies. This difference may be explained by referring to the specific characteristics of each population.

Regarding the Jewish students' idealism, it seems that it is transformed and acquires a different meaning as they progress in their professional development and are exposed to more fieldwork experience. According to May (1996), by definition, work with students with special needs poses challenges that are not encountered in the field of mainstream education. Typically, special education teachers feel both obligated and equipped to meet these challenges and address all of the needs – physical, social and pedagogical – of the children in their care, at least during the six- to eight-hour workday if not beyond. Hillel Lavian's (2008) study with veteran teachers in special education found that the multiple tasks and roles, and the need to cope simultaneously with various aspects and problems that emerge, led the veteran teachers to perceive their role as a particularly complex one. Thus, an increased comprehension of the complexities involved may explain the noted decline, which coincided with students' professional development, in the expression of the themes of the heart (perhaps indicating unconditional love) and the human figure (suggestive of the image of the ideal teacher) in the students' drawings.

The opposite trend was noted among students from the Arab sector, in relation to the same themes. Historical views portray Arab society in Israel as conservative and as undergoing a continuous process of Western modernisation (Lewin-Epstein & Semyonov, 1992). On the one hand, this process has always been recognised as affecting the traditional family structure and opening new avenues for the education of women (Al-Haj, 1988). On the other hand, this process has been described as imposing conflicting demands on women seeking to acquire a profession, as they are still subject to various limitations from their personal social and cultural surroundings. A study by Najar (1990) found that Arab women –as much as Arab men – expressed an interest in professions; however, the rate of matches between the preferred professional field and a possible choice was lower among the women. Nearly 50% of the women indicated as their preferred choice a profession that did not match their interest. Upon choosing a professional field, Arab women, more than their male counterparts, took into account their family's needs (Ringel-Bar, 1989). Thus, if these women give precedence to familial commitments over other considerations, there would appear to be a limited number of options that would enable them to engage in a professional role while adhering to the familial demands to the extent they see fit.

Dafna Regev, one of the authors of this article, worked for a number of years as the head of the Special Education Track in the Teacher Training College in the Arab village of Sakhnin. In this position, she met many Arab women who arrived at the teacher training college and had chosen to pursue the special education track with little prior knowledge of the field. Their choice was based on an awareness of the field of education as an adequate profession for a wife and a mother, and a prior notion that pursuing a degree in special education was considered more prestigious than one in regular education. For many of these women, it was only during the course of their studies (as can be seen also in Karni & Reiter, 2010) that they met with children and learnt of the adaptive approaches for teaching children with special needs. Often these students underwent a transformational process, as they became truly interested in the field, which in turn increased their desire to experience the positive emotions (the theme of love) associated with the children and to embody the image of the ideal teacher (the human figure theme).

Variance between Arab and Jewish students in the use of symbolic imagery and human figures

This study presents two interesting findings in which the drawings made by Arab students are contrasted with those made by the Jewish students. The first was discussed earlier in this article, namely, the increased (Arab students') versus the decreased (Jewish students') use of the human figure theme, which coincided with professional advancement through the training programme. This variance may be further explained by referring to the study by Karni and Reiter (2010). Their study highlighted an important factor that differentiated between the middle school teachers in the Arab sector who favoured inclusion and those who were against the inclusion of special education classes in the mainstream programme. This factor was training in the field of special education. Teachers who had received specific training in special education tended to favour inclusion, compared to teachers who had trained in general education. In a similar vein, the results of the current study show an increased use of human figure images among the Arab students as they progressed through the programme of studies and their amount of training experience increased. This finding may reflect a gradual transformation, a shift from certain preconceived notions that they might have possessed prior to their specialised training to a new understanding based on their direct contact with children with special needs. The attachments that they forged and the resulting shift in attitudes may have led them to perceive the special education teacher in a more idealised light, as a figure engaged in an important and rewarding social endeavour.

The second finding in which a contrast was noted between the Arab and the Jewish students was related to the more frequent use of imagery from nature in the drawings made by the Arab students compared to drawings by Jewish students. A possible explanation may be that until a few decades ago, Arab women partook in working in their family's fields: they participated in agricultural work and processes, and these tasks were part and parcel of their housework (Ibrahim, 1991). Thus, it is possible that they have a greater attachment than Jewish students do to nature and its agricultural cycle, and therefore they tended to use this imagery more than their counterparts did to express themselves.

A study based on drawings can help reveal an additional dimension of the feelings of special education students towards the role they are preparing to fulfil. Unlike attitudes expressed through secondary processes, drawings, which are a primary form of expression, can provide an in-depth view of the students' emotions.

One central limitation of this study was the fact that all the participants were female students. However, given that the overwhelming majority of undergraduate students in special education in Israel are in fact women, it would have been very difficult to find a sample of male students. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to investigate whether the views expressed by male students might focus on different aspects of the role of the special education teacher than those illuminated by female students. An additional limitation of the study was that the drawing task took place during the students' classes; consequently, some of the participants invested more effort than others in preparing their drawings. Asking the students to complete the same task in more controlled conditions might have produced richer data, providing an opportunity to consider not only the themes evoked but also the way in which they were expressed. A future study could address these aspects and assess whether they affect the findings.

This study is the first of its kind; as such, it attempted to raise initial issues regarding the relationship between attitudes and behaviours. To this end, it examined drawings as a primary reflection of the thoughts and processes that trainees in the field of special education undergo, in an attempt to improve understanding of their future behaviours.