The left side of your brain is telling you to save the world while the right side is asking “Where do I even begin?” Most new teachers in any grade level, in any subject area feel this way. Well, tell your brain to take a step back and check out some of my advice, from an experienced special education teacher to you.
1. Find a staff member to confide in and with whom you can share your stories. Ask for advice, but skip the complaining. You have started on a tough journey and teaching special education can feel overwhelming at times. I remember when I first started teaching special education: My previous experience was in the general education classroom and as a result, my student expectations were not at all what they needed to be. I wanted my students to display perfect behavior and they didn’t; so, I was stressed and uptight and felt like I was failing. I started to share my experiences with a colleague (and friend) and asked for advice. Some of the advice was just what I needed to feel better about myself. (Skip the griping, however–no one wants to be around a complainer.) This leads me to tip #2.
2. Take advice from colleagues and try it in baby steps. If you ask for advice from a colleague, you are not obligated to follow that advice. I have found that the best method for trying out new advice is to implement the specific advice that suits your specific needs. I prefer to blend my teaching style with the new suggestions that I like. Remember when I told you that I was feeling like a failure? I listened to a lot of suggestions, but I only implemented the ideas that were right for me and my students.
3. Be accountable to your students and your co-teachers at all times. This piece of advice is near and dear to my heart. In my second year of teaching 4th grade, I had a handful of students with emotional disabilities in my general education classroom. I was an inexperienced teacher and not once did a special education teacher come into my room to help. These students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) were left in my mailbox and I was on my own.
Flash forward 15 years and I am the special education teacher going into someone else’s classroom. I am there every minute of every class period because they need me. I have paperwork piling up and I have data that needs to be analyzed, but I will not leave them. You shouldn’t either. If you are not in the classroom, you cannot guarantee that IEPs are being implemented. Be prepared to develop your role in the classroom around the strengths and needs of the general education teacher. Identify his or her weaknesses and step up in those areas. Identify your own weaknesses and let the general education teacher shine in these areas.
4. Strong relationships will make you a better teacher. It is assumed that you will spend time getting to know your students and will love them like your own, but take the time to get to know the parents of your students, too. Do not wait until the IEP process begins to have a conversation with them. They hold valuable information about your students and you need this information to be an effective teacher. Call them at the beginning of the year to welcome them to your caseload or your classroom. Call them when you have a concern and when you have a compliment. By the time you get to the case conference, your relationship will be a solid one. Email is a great tool, too, but that personal phone call is a must. Do not forget to document everything.
5. You will not only be teaching students: take time to teach the general education staff. You will probably encounter staff members who have a difficult time understanding your educational role. I am a pretty easygoing person, but I have had a few run-ins with those who wonder what I do all day. To be an effective teacher you must be an advocate for yourself. You have a unique role as a special educator and you must educate your colleagues about your responsibilities. Take some time to make a list of everything you do so you are prepared to teach them when the time comes.
In addition, other teachers may have a difficult time working with students with special needs because they believe in treating all students equally. Each and every student is unique and you might need to prepare a lesson for your colleagues to help them understand that “fair is not always equal.”
6. Take time for yourself. The long hours, the never-ending paperwork and the emotional drain is a lot to deal with. Teaching special education is incredibly challenging, but the rewards are immeasurable. The smiles that feel like sunshine and the stories of rising above struggles to achieve success will keep me in this profession for a long time. But, be sure to take time for yourself. I know teachers that work late into the evening and return on Saturday and Sunday. I applaud them, but I know that I would not be able to do my absolute best in the classroom if I didn’t do the things I love to do after school hours. Prioritize your to-do list and make sure that you add a few things that are not work related. I know a lot of new teachers that forget this piece of advice.
I know you are still going to try to change the world, and I’m grateful for that. Remember these six tips and you might just do it!