Even the most veteran teacher can feel anxious about a new school year starting, so it’s totally normal for any incoming teacher to experience the same apprehension. In fact, ask any teacher to describe their first year in the classroom, and you’ll likely hear the word “hard.” Couple that new experience with leading a special education classroom–which comes with its own unique challenges–and it’s easy to see why being a new special education teacher can feel daunting. But this difficult job can also be tremendously rewarding, as education specialists get a front row seat to watching learners build confidence, master skills, and take steps toward independence.
The upcoming days and weeks will be filled with new information as you begin to know your students, your school, and your community. Here are a few tips to help you manage your first time in the classroom as a special education teacher.
- Lay the foundation for positive, supportive relationships with your students.
Data indicates that teachers influence student achievement more than any factor. Students learn best when they feel safe and supported. In both one-on-one and group settings, build a classroom culture of inclusivity, positivity, and engagement. Get to know your students as people first: what their families are like, what they’re reading, how they spend time with their friends. Don’t be afraid to share parts of yourself, too: you can talk about your pet, or what you did over summer vacation. Smiles and laughter are strong signs that you’re forging connection.
- Know your students’ IEPs.
The IEP, or “individualized education program,” is critical in understanding how to best support each student. First, note any essential meeting dates and times, and put them on your calendar. Next, read each IEP carefully, noting any learning accommodations, behavioral concerns, and goals. Lastly, save all your IEPs in an organized, easy-to-find manner. Whether you’re storing them digitally or in hard copy, they should be easily accessible for reference.
- Embrace your mistakes.
Everyone messes up; it’s part of being human. Rather than expecting perfection from yourself, adopt a mantra that acknowledges your effort and forgives any missteps, such as, “I’m doing the best I can, the best I know how.” The best part about making mistakes is that we always learn from them. Every mistake is a learning opportunity, for you and your students.
- Establish your support network–and use it.
If you haven’t been formally assigned a mentor, identify someone who has experience and expertise at the school and would be willing to work with you in a mentorship capacity. Likewise, identify the people with whom you will be working closely: other special education teachers, teacher aides, paraprofessionals, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, school counselors, etc. Know the best way to reach them during the school day, and bring them your questions. They’re your teammates and your allies.
- Connect with your students’ families.
Regular, transparent communication with student families goes a long way, especially if there’s ever a need to have a difficult conversation at some point in the school year. Reaching out to say hello and introduce yourself helps establish that you and the family are on the same team, working towards the same goal: optimizing the student’s success.
- Know your classroom.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time here, so spend some time getting familiar with the space. If it’s your own, decorate it in a way that feels welcoming, inspiring, and supportive. If you share it, ask your co-teacher(s) what you can contribute. Know where to find things like scrap paper, markers, Band-Aids, etc. It may feel like a small thing now, but a child standing in front of you bleeding from an accident with the scissors is not the time for you to realize that you don’t know where the first aid kit is!
- Establish your schedule.
Many students, especially those in a special education classroom, benefit from a structured daily routine. Try to create a schedule that you can keep with consistency. Though students will work with specialists throughout the day, maintaining a regular rhythm for the class helps to save time during transition periods and minimizes opportunities for things to go awry.
- Plan–and be flexible.
Though this tip sounds oxymoronic, it’s one of the best strategies for any teacher. Knowing the content of your lesson is important, and having the materials ready for instruction is key. But teaching is anything but predictable. Your students may be disinterested, behaving poorly, or otherwise impeding what you had planned. And that’s okay. Try to always have an activity or two that you can use as a backup for when your plans are derailed.
- Take care of yourself.
A common first year teacher mistake is overzealousness. Staying up late planning lessons or grading, skipping yoga class to fit in a parent meeting, or being available via email at all hours of the day will eventually take its toll. Think of what flight attendants tell you about what to do when the oxygen masks drop: put your own on first before helping others. You can’t be your best self for your students if you’re not taking care of yourself. Find enjoyment in the work, but know when the work ends and your own personal life begins.
- Have fun.
The best part about being a teacher is spending time with kids who are smart, creative, and funny. Your students will be those things. They will make you laugh and they will frustrate you. They will reach major milestones, and they will get stuck. Bearing witness to their journey is an immense privilege. When you get mired in the minutiae of administrative demands and time constraints, try to take a step back to look at the bigger picture. In the grand scheme of things, you’re doing important work of which you should feel proud.
Every school year comes with challenges that no teacher can anticipate. But keeping these 10 tips in mind should keep you on the path for a successful year, and many more to follow.
Here’s a PDF version of the 10 Tips for you!