Some Tips You Need to Know to Survive Your First Year in Special Education

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

So, this isn't my first year as a special education Teacher anymore…it's certainly not my first year in Education…this year marks year 21 in the field. Having served in a variety of roles over these many years, it's a safe bet that I thought I had a handle on my new gig-a calling from which I'd run for many, many years.

During the past two decades, I've been a Guest Teacher (fancy jargon for "Sub"), a Second Grade Teacher, a Third Grade Teacher, an Interventionist, a State and Federal Funding Coordinator, a Mentor Team Leader, and a Middle School Administrator. Those are the official roles. Parallel to all of those roles, add in therapist, mom, nurse, social worker, mentor, crowd controller, disciplinarian, distraction, giver and receiver of compliments, receiver of adjusting feedback, guide, director, and many, many others. My years look just like those of so many others in our field. We are many things to many people.

Suffice it to say, I felt ready to shift gears from general education into a special education degree. I figured my career and personal history had shored me up, and had aimed me into the direction to which I'd been called; a call which I'd finally decided to heed. As last school year was getting ready to launch, my thought was, "Let's do this!" My room was ready, I'd read the files, I had the swagger…

Do I even need to write the next line? You're right. I wasn't as ready as I thought I was.

Granted, I was in a bit of a better position to make the transition than some whom I'd met at meetings prior to the start of school-they were fresh out of college, many from other fields of study but who couldn't find jobs in their field, so they'd committed to going back to school while working on an emergency certification in Special Education. Yeah, I was in waaaaaaaaay better shape than they were. In my haughtiness, I felt quite superior in the fact that I at least knew the jargon. I knew kids. I knew paperwork. Well, sorta.

…and then school started. I quickly learned that I didn't know nuthin'!

In the school where I started my Arkansas teaching career last year, help was limited and not always as accurate as it needed to be; by the time I landed in Teacher Heaven (for real! I love my district!!!), help was not only accurate, but it was abundant and delivered with a genuine kindness and reciprocal joy-they were excited to have me, I was even more thrilled to be there.

With the calm, kind direction I'd received, by the end of the year, I'd managed to find my way. To say I am grateful to the school's Resource Teacher, the Speech Pathologist, the Psychologist, the Special Education Department Administrative Assistant, the Principal, and the Special Education Department Director is an understatement at best.

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But let me help save you some grief as you embark-or consider embarking-on your teaching journey for this school year. This information isn't solely for Special Education Teachers…it is for, as we say here in Arkansas, all y'all teachers.

  • I.S.S. Keep it simple, sweetie! Everyone loves a beautifully decorated room and tons of plans, but please know that there will be some kiddos who can't handle all the stimuli. Don't be hurt if you need to pull down some of your really cool décor hanging from the walls, doors, or ceilings. There will just be some kids who can't hack the stimulation. As for those amazingly written plans, there will be days when you accomplish all of them and days when you have to carry them over to tomorrow. It's all good!
  • Twenty minute blocks are the goal, but then again, that might not happen. Plan your day in spurts. This gives them a concentrated and focused session, but isn't overwhelming-USUALLY. You'll become adept at reading your kids and knowing their duration of focus. The goal is to push a bit more each day, to create academic endurance.
  • Learn and use Brain Gym techniques on the site Crossing the midline, jumping, bending, and twisting will cause blood flow to improve and cause the brain to spark up the kids' proverbial engines to be ready for the next segment.
  • ASK QUESTIONS. ‘Nuff said.
  • Don't be a silo. You're not alone. Invite your general ed. peers to come visit your classroom, share information with them, ask them for ideas-especially if those teachers have been around the block once or twice. All too many times I have seen teachers shut their door and remain isolated by choice, and then when they grumble to others about how unfriendly their peers are, it was always easy for me to follow up with this saying from my Granny: In order to have a friend, you need to BE a friend. Boom. Granny strikes again!
  • Read the kids' IEP's as well in advance of the first day of school as you possibly can. This will help you know their needs and goals before planning your days.
  • Connect with kids and families as soon as you can, and if possible, before school starts. Offering a warm greeting, asking them to, "Tell me about your baby…" and sharing your enthusiasm kicks off the year in a positive way. Who knows the kids best? Their family. Embrace it.RELATED - Special Education & Family
  • Worship the ground on which your paraprofessional or aid walks. Love her, be kind to her, praise her with genuine words, and if possible, think of her as a sister-the sister you like. The same is true for the school secretary and the school custodian. They will all save your bacon on more than one occasion.
  • If parents offer to donate stuff, be specific in your request-and check with your building administrator on your district's policy for accepting donations. Sometimes policies are strange to us, but they're rooted in rationale. Anyway, when a parent asks me what they can donate, I ask for the following: tissues, sanitizing wipes, hand soap (I'm not a fan of hand sanitizer), paper towels, gently used books for our book nook, gently used toys for our toy closet, puzzles, Ziplock bags (pint and gallon), and brown paper bags.
  • Have good energy. If your kiddos sense you're in a crummy mood-guess what? Your day just got even longer.
  • Know the day's weather. If it's going to be rainy, bust out the hands-on activities and keep the fun tactile all day long.
  • It's okay to Google the mess out of any terminology or rules with which you're unfamiliar. If you don't know what a 504 plan is and from whence it came, you need to learn. If you're unfamiliar with FAPE, Watoosie your way to and read up on it.
  • If you don't know how to write an I.E.P., do not wait until I.E.P. writing season is upon you. My neighbor/Resource Room Teacher Kelly was a blessing from above-patiently guiding me through each line of this very important legal document to be sure I wrote a solid plan for my students. Then, ask someone else (because you've already siphoned enough of your own Kelly's time) to review it and provide feedback.
  • LISTEN TO FEEDBACK; be willing to adjust accordingly. That's Teacher 101, so I'm preaching to the choir on that point.
  • Be patient. Stuff is going to happen. Disruptions will derail your plans. Therapists pop in and out all day long to pick up/return kids. Parents get upset or frustrated. Kids poop their pants. Someone will have a meltdown. Someone else will knock over your water bottle, which you forgot to cap-and it's next to your computer. Someone else will be making the most peculiar bird sounds you've ever heard and probably will be flapping their "wings," too. I see your stress and raise you an observation by your principal while all this is going on. The seasoned, long-term veteran Special Education Teachers I know all have one trait in common: they are patient. Ever see a lockdown drill or tornado drill with a self-contained class? Patience…
  • Learn to love your kiddos. They're amazing people who, while they have differences of the physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral variety, they KNOW if they are loved. Love them. You'll be loved right back!
  • A lot. It's really the best tip I have to give you.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. That's the second best tip I have to give you.
  • Know that it's okay to be a tigress on behalf of your babies. Sometimes you're their only advocate…so advocate!
  • Have a pack of 10 pens. There's a lot of paperwork and you're gonna need ‘em. If your district is all online, know where your computer's charging cord is at all times.
  • Get your rest, get your exercise, eat right. Consider keeping some nutritionally beneficial snacks at school.
  • If you have a prep time, find a quiet place of solitude in which you can do your prep work. If you do NOT have a prep time, be aware of establishing a solid work-home balance. Don't stay after school too late to make up for not having a prep.

The bottom line in all this is quite simple: if you're eager and willing to learn, you will learn. One thing I've come to realize in my new gig is that ALL teachers' jobs are happily exhausting.

As summer winds down and your focus begins to narrow on the new school year at hand, remember that you are in a place where you are able to affect so much joy, so much change, and so much love. You'll be in a place to inform your building team of great ways to support their kids, to provide new and interesting strategies to help struggling learners. If you're really lucky, you'll be poised to get some of the best hugs you've ever been given!

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