Happy New Year! As I ring in the new year, I’m preparing for my first year as a special education teacher and reflecting on my time as a student intern. I began a Master’s of Arts in teaching program for special education in August of 2013 and graduated from the program in December 2014. During my final semester, I participated in a student-teaching internship as a 6th grade special programs teacher, where I taught four in-class resource classes (two math and two language arts) and one curriculum assistance course. My internship was stressful, demanding, and an emotional roller coaster; on the other hand, it was enjoyable, rewarding, and awe-inspiring. If I had to choose one word to describe my experience as a student teacher, then it would be “successful.” I learned a great deal in a short amount of time and discovered my life’s passion. As a first-year teacher, it’s an honor to share with future teacher candidates five tips for surviving student teaching in special education.
Ask for Help
Being a student teacher, and often finding yourself surrounded by veteran teachers who seem to have it all together, can be intimidating. Thankfully, student teachers are blessed with a cooperating or mentor teacher who is there to lend a helping hand and provide support. Your cooperating teacher is there to offer guidance; however, don’t expect them to be mind readers. It is your responsibility to ask for help and be explicit about what you need. Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question when you’re student teaching. If you’re not sure how to use the copier, ask! If you don’t know where the supply closet is, ask! If you would like some background information on a student, ask! If you want to read your students’ IEPs, ask (but remember, keep it confidential)! It’s your first time being a teacher, so don’t be so hard on yourself. If you need an answer, the you need to ask the question.
Promote High Expectations
According to the US Department of Education, “students tend to learn as little or as much [as] their teachers expect. Teachers who set and communicate high expectations to all their students obtain greater academic performance from these students than teachers who set low expectations” (1986).
It may be easy for rookie special education teachers to lower expectations for their students. Don’t do it! Though our students may need to work more diligently than their typically developing peers to learn the same content, expectations should be high. Expectations should be expressed clearly and consistently to students. Not only should students be aware of your expectations, but you should also encourage students to meet those expectations and celebrate when they do.
Implement an Effective System of Classroom Management
Effective classroom management is the foundation for a successful classroom. Classroom management goes beyond a flashy system of “consequences” or a fancy laminated daily schedule. Your methods for implementing classroom management should be research-based. Remember to praise and reinforce appropriate behaviors in the classroom. You should give at least four times more positive reinforcement than other types of redirection. This is even more important for special education teachers to keep in mind because it’s no secret that our students often require more redirection than their peers. Another piece of advice for up-and-coming special education teachers is to teach appropriate behaviors to students when trying to decrease disruptive behaviors. Just as we teach students how to solve equations, we must also teach them how to engage in appropriate behaviors.
Build Relationships with Your Students
Students may forget the definitions of their vocabulary words or how to simplify fractions, but they will remember the small moments in the cafeteria when you made them laugh and the fist bumps for being successful in math class. As I mentioned, student teaching is a stressful roller-coaster ride. Building relationships can help relieve some of the stresses of teaching for the first time. Get to know your students, greet them by name every day, and engage in conversations about things happening outside of school. These interactions will help you forget your laundry list of things to do (at least for a little while) and inspire you to be the best teacher you can be!
Document, Document, Document
The most practical tidbit of advice I can offer all of you student teachers is to DOCUMENT EVERYTHING! Trust me, you’ll thank yourself later. Take pictures of posters you make. Scan student work samples. Ask your cooperating teacher to take a video of you teaching a lesson. Take notes during IEP meetings or parent-teacher conferences. Save parent contacts and communications with other teachers. Take notes on how to use your school’s system for documenting behaviors and parent contacts. Write down names of people you meet for future reference. Bookmark helpful websites or blogs (like this one). Not only will saving all of these things help you complete your coursework and portfolio, but it will also be helpful when you begin your first year of teaching.
I hope this post was helpful as you begin the incredible journey to become a special education teacher!