9 Tips for (new) Special Educators

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about the work I do and how I do it. More than once I have heard from other staff, who have spent any time in my room, that all teachers ought to spend a day in my self-contained, multi-disability resource room. I think I probably agree…they should come in and see what we do because general education teachers, generally speaking, have little idea what we do in special education. I seriously believe that sometimes they think we are not even educating the students in our classrooms.

As a new special educator (but as a second career and, thus, older teacher), I have been writing down some thoughts and observations that have helped me, and continue to help me, become a better intervention specialist. Here are 9 tips that have helped me.

First, be prepared for a lot of ill health, absenteeism, late arrivals and early dismissals. It can be a blessing and it can be annoying, but whatever it is, on whatever day it is, you have to be prepared for it. There are doctor appointments, there is a higher susceptibility for illness, there are appointments with psychologists or social services workers, and a plethora of other places your students will have to be. And it’s not just at home either. At school, your students will have appointments with counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists. This means, in short, that you have to be prepared and flexible.

It means that you may have the most beautiful lesson plans ever written and have to put them on hold for another day or two or three or month. It means that some students will be perpetually behind in their work. I have had a student who was supposed to move out of state who actually never left town, was gone for two plus months, and is now returning to class. There’s a lot of work to do and there is no point in getting frustrated by the hecticity and chaos of the students’ schedule. Roll with it.

Second, be prepared to write an IEP, for a student you may have never met, on a moment’s notice. New students are arriving and new students are being identified for special education services all the time. You need to have a plan in place for how you will bridge that gap when it arrives. Often the ETR or IEP meetings are scheduled at a moment’s notice: be prepared. Gather as much information as you can, rely on state standards (or common core) for the language you will use in the IEP itself, and take a few minutes to talk to the student, if you can, beforehand. The key is to be ready–practice if you need to.

Third, be prepared to play ‘catch-down.’ This will tie in with another point I make later, but something I realized early on is that it is unreasonable to ask my students to move at my pace because then I’m always asking the students to play ‘catch-up.’ So, I took the initiative, placed the burden on my own shoulders, and decided to play ‘catch-down.’ I made mid-course adjustments so that I am moving at their pace. Now this is not to say that I never prod them to work harder or faster. I do. But it is to say that it’s OK if you do not finish a project in one day. I made a deliberate decision to simply slow down the pace.

Fourth, hurry is a choice. I was walking with my principal one day, talking about school stuff, and it was clear she was in a hurry. I get that. Principals have a lot of work to do. But it also occurred to me that being in a hurry is not something I have to do. I can choose to walk at a casual pace if I want to. Playing ‘catch-down’ is also a deliberate choice. It means that, even though it appears we have very little time, we actually have as much time as we decide we need. There is no point in getting overly stressed about time. Learn to manage it. Learn to make time your servant, and not the other way around. I heard someone say that ‘teachers do not get to choose when they go to the bathroom.’ I disagree. It seems to me that it makes better sense for a student to learn a few things thoroughly than a bunch of things poorly. Take your time.

Fifth, be prepared to write lesson plans for a variety of students who have a variety of abilities and a variety of interests and a variety of learning styles and a variety of skills. In the cross-categorical classroom, we have students with Downs Syndrome, Autism, emotional/behavioral disorders, and whatever else comes our way. And we do so happily and gladly. But we also know that no two of our students will learn the same way, at the same pace, and with the same methods. Lesson plans typically need to reflect this. Be ready to write plans that differentiate your instruction for your students. It is typically a lot of work; be ready. (Also, let's note that IEPs are individualized for a reason.)

Sixth, be prepared to communicate with parents often. I personally send home my own version of a daily-report card–daily. There is also email, phone calls, parent teacher conferences and the spur of the moment, unscheduled, my-kid-got-kicked-off-the-bus meetings. I tend to be pro-active about communication that way I am not caught off-guard. I try to communicate as often and as much as I can without interrupting the daily routine. It is not always possible, neither is it always easy (especially if you are communicating discipline issues or IEP issues), but it always necessary.

Seventh, be prepared to deal with the ignorance of general education teachers, but also be cooperative and helpful. (This is not an insult to gen-ed teachers. It is a reality. We all have our own specialty areas.) Generally speaking, regular education teachers are not trained to deal with an autistic student who is having a major meltdown. Generally speaking, regular education teachers have very little idea what we do in special education (which is, to be sure, teaching students just as they do, but differently). So when I say ‘ignorance’ I simply mean not specialized or unaware of what 'we' do. Therefore it is important for the special educator to be patient with other teachers (and they us), supportive, helpful, and deft in conveying information that will be helpful to them if they ask questions about their own students. In other words, be open; do not be a know-it-all. Help when asked, observe when not asked, and communicate clearly always.

Eighth, be prepared to spend a lot of time alone. Yes, teachers get lunch & prep time, but that does not mean that our students take a lunch and a prep time. They still have needs and they still could melt-down (sadly, I have seen it and it typically manifests itself in unstructured areas or when they are with inexperienced staff or paraprofessionals.) Again, the special education teacher needs to be flexible. On the other hand, special education is often a small and overlooked ‘department’ in the school. There’s not a lot of time for team meetings with other special educators and given the needs of our students, we must spend a lot of time with them. Be prepared to make some friends you can count on or be prepared to spend a lot of time alone.

Finally, ninth, work that your students do does not have to be perfect, it just has to be theirs. Bottom line is this: I want the parents of my students to be proud of their son or daughter’s work, not mine or the paraprofessional's. We could do the work for them, make it look pristine and wonderful. Or we could leave it to the students–there will be too much glue, wrinkled papers, sloppy writing, overworked crayons, and more. It won’t be perfect, but it will be theirs. And this is the most important thing I can say to new special education teachers. Let the students be proud of the work they accomplish on their own without your help. It’s important that we guide our students, not control them.

Special education can be tricky. We want our students to do and be and succeed, but we (at least I) want it to be their best effort not mine. I practice hands-off because the only way I know if a student can do something is if they do it. If they try and fail, that’s OK. We learn in failure too. But if they never try, and they never fail, then what has anyone learned?

So that's my 9 tips for new special educators. What are some of the tips you would offer to new special educators?

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