As a first-year elementary special education teacher, you have many wonderful memories … and challenges … that lie ahead.
Becoming a special education teacher is a rewarding career choice, but it also comes with its own unique sets of obstacles since you are working with students who require extra assistance in the classroom since they face mental, emotional, learning or physical challenges.
It’s common for any teacher to feel anxious about beginning the first year of teaching, but for special education teachers, you may feel a little extra weight on your shoulders.
Here are five tips that offer practical advice on how to stay afloat and have a successful first year.
- Develop Positive Relationships With Parents
- Plan, But Be Open To Change
- Create A System For Your IEPs
- Focus On Work-Life Balance
- Use Your Professional Connections
Develop Positive Relationships With Parents
Parents play an important role in the team of educators (special education teachers, therapists, general education teachers, etc.) and supporters (families, social workers and other members of the family network) who work to meet the needs of each individual child. Developing a positive relationship with your student's parents will help make your job easier.
Often at the beginning of the year, you will have an opportunity to meet with parents at a child’s IEP meeting. An Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a legal document that each public school child in the United States must have if that child needs special education services.
Regular meetings are a component of an IEP, and many families will have their initial IEP meetings scheduled prior to the start of school or at the beginning of the school year. At this meeting, you will go over with the parents which services the child will receive to match the student’s specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities, visual impairments, intellectual disabilities, language impairments and other developmental delays.
However, you can also reach out to parents in additional ways in order to foster a positive relationship. For example, reach out by phone or email and introduce yourself. Ask the parents questions about their child, such as likes and dislikes, or any other techniques that work well at home that can help the child succeed in the classroom.
You can also keep your parents updated throughout the school year by sending routine newsletters or personalized email messages, or through apps like ClassDojo that offer an additional tool to share what is happening in the classroom.
Establishing a positive, collaborative environment at the beginning of the school year will go a long way with parents and make them more receptive to any news you share during the year.
Plan, But Be Open To Change
Organization is one of the most important skills of a special education teacher. However, while proper planning is essential to staying organized, the best educators are open to changing the game plan. Sometimes you may even need to throw the game plan completely out the window.
In any classroom, issues can arise throughout the day that may cause you to put aside even the best well-thoughtout plans. Even the smallest interruptions or changes can cause you to change course, whether it’s an unexpected fire drill or behavior issues with a student that need addressing immediately.
Depending on your student's needs, some lessons may take longer than you anticipated. You may also lose some of the help you thought you would have, such as if a paraprofessional is called to a classroom or the speech therapist who normally takes the students out of the classroom for one-on-one therapy is out sick.
It’s important to remember that each child’s needs will also evolve. You may have to adjust your lesson plans based on whether a child is progressing slower or faster than what was expected of that student.
Create A System For Your IEPs
As we mentioned above, IEPs are integral to a child’s elementary education. All students enrolled in special education services must have an IEP. While there are several educators and administrators who are part of creating and maintaining an IEP, this document will help guide you as you work with each child during the school year.
Depending on how you provide special education services, you may have students placed in several general education classrooms or you may have a classroom of your own with a small number of special education students.
With either, it’s important to create a system of organization for your IEPs and other relevant paperwork. Here are a few ways to create that system:
- Update your calendar. At the beginning of the year, go through each student’s IEP and update a calendar with all relevant due dates. This will allow you to prepare ahead of time for any compliance paperwork that must be completed.
- Create a separate folder for each student. In each folder should be the student’s current IEP, as well as other documentation such as previous IEPs, meeting notices, placement forms, incident reports and student progress reports.
- Develop goal sheets that show progress that can be measured. IEPs are typically lengthy documents and can be time-consuming to read through regularly. They also often reflect larger goals that aren’t necessarily broken down by week or month. Developing personalized goal sheets that can be updated as needed will help you narrow down which smaller, achievable goals you’ll work on attaining that day, week or month as part of a larger effort to achieve larger goals outlined in the IEP.
It’s also helpful before IEP meetings to develop an agenda that keeps you on track when discussing a student’s needs and goals. Reviewing a past agenda before the meeting will also help narrow down which areas a student excelled in and which areas need more work.
Focus On Work-Life Balance
Special education is a demanding career. You have students with a wide variety of disabilities and special needs who rely on you for assistance, leadership and care. Without a good work-life balance, it will be easy burn out quickly.
Set a schedule for yourself when you will get any additional job duties like paperwork completed. For example, you will arrive early two days a week or stay after school for an hour or two. It’s important to stick to this schedule to focus your energy on accomplishing these additional tasks that cannot be finished during the day while working with students.
As a first-year elementary teacher, you may feel compelled to say “yes” to every request that comes your way. Because you will have a lot on your plate, it may be a good idea to step away from serving on any committees or volunteering during this first year of teaching. If you choose to participate on an optional committee or choose to volunteer at an event, make sure you are not setting yourself up for exhaustion, and you truly have time in your schedule.
Finally, use your personal time to socialize or do an activity that you enjoy. Many first-year teachers are in the same situation you are, whether they teach in special education programs or not. They can be a great support network for you as you all navigate your first year of teaching together.
Use Your Professional Connections
As a first-year teacher, you may feel like you’re on a desert island. However, you have hopefully built up a network of support that you can turn to for support.
This is why the educator preparation program you choose is so important. In Texas, you must complete 300 hours of training, 30 of which is mentor-observed classroom teaching time. The 30 hours of observation by a teacher advisor is a very important part of your certification process. These teacher advisors will inform your program whether you are ready or not to teach in the classroom.
ECAP has former principals, vice principals and teachers who have extensive experience to help you through this process. Not all programs do this. Some simply send past teachers who are even ex-students of their program to evaluate you, so it is important to contact the program you are considering to ensure that you are going to get the best advisor to help you.
These assigned mentors can help you navigate your first year of teaching, but it’s important that you enroll in a program that has mentors who are invested in your success.
You may also feel a connection with other teachers at your school who can serve as mentors. Many veteran teachers enjoy helping new teachers and can offer valuable advice on developing relationships with parents and students and navigating the day-to-day responsibilities of being an early childhood educator.
While being a first-year teacher can feel lonely at times, seeking the professional guidance of a mentor can help you weather the ups and downs of your initial year and grow as both a person and a professional.