Survival Tips for First Year Special Education Teachers

It’s no secret that the first year of any teaching job is almost always the hardest. I believe that this is especially true for special education teachers. There is nothing that I learned in any of my undergraduate or graduate courses that truly prepared me for surviving my first year of teaching special education. I’m not trying to discount what I did learn in my college courses, but I also believe that all teaching programs should equip their future teachers with more real life skills. This skill set includes survival tips for their first year. I wrote this article specifically with special education teachers in mind. However, many of these tips are applicable to all first year teachers.

I know that all teaching programs strongly advise against day-to-day planning, so a lot of teachers are very apprehensive about adopting this frame of mind, even when it’s very temporary. No, it isn’t the best strategy. I’m not advocating for this as a successful long-term teaching strategy. However, I also know what it’s like to jump into a brand new school with a brand new group of special education students. It is virtually impossible to start planning past the next day until you are able to evaluate your students, which is a time-consuming process, even when things go smoothly. After you have completed evaluations, your initial prep time is so time-consuming that you simply don’t have time to do anything past what you need for the next day.

Tip: When you’re writing lesson plans your first year, save all of your materials. Even if you don’t take the time to organize them and just stick them in a folder, it will make it much easier to use them for long-term planning in your second year.

It’s wonderful to have rubrics to keep track of all of your data. I was fortunate to inherit some rubrics that I could continue to use with the students who had been in my program the year before I started. If you don’t have any rubrics or other explicit guidelines written in your IEPs for goal progress monitoring, don’t worry about how your data looks, especially during the first couple months. Make sure that you are working on all goal areas and saving all of your data.

Tip: Make rubrics or other progress monitoring tools for students as you write new IEPs throughout the school year. Many rubrics can be used over again or can be easily adapted for new students, making this process easier each subsequent year that you teach.

If you work for a larger district, hopefully you’ll be able to collaborate with other special educators in your district on a regular basis. If you work for a smaller district like I do, you may have to seek support elsewhere. I’ve been able to meet other special educators in this area through my graduate courses. You can also network through re-certification courses, workshops, conferences, and online forums. Having a support network is a huge asset in any career. Even when you aren’t looking for resources or advice, sometimes just having someone there to listen can make a big difference.

Tip: Get contact information from special education teachers you meet outside of your district. You never know who may be able to provide any number of resources in the future.

I have stressed this point in many of my other special education articles as well. (See additional articles at the end of this article.) It is very easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all of the things that you’ll need to make or buy throughout the course of the entire school year. It’s important not to let this get you down and to instead focus on what you’ll need for the next week or two. It’s also important to prioritize and budget realistically. You will not be able to make or buy everything that you want for your classroom in the first or even second and third years of teaching. Make a purchasing plan for the next few years.

Tip: Laminate all materials that you’ll be using over and over again so they will last longer. Save all worksheets that you modify. This will also help you with your long-term planning. I will share more information in future hubs about how I organize all of my modified comprehension materials.

I have a tough time delegating tasks to others. Anyone who has worked with paras knows that their abilities range greatly. Hopefully, you’re lucky enough to have one or two that can handle simple daily tasks and/or assembly work. Designating repetitive tasks such as setting up visual schedules and Velcro calendars will free you up to get other things accomplished. Getting assistance when you’re making materials will help the process go a lot more quickly, too.

Tip: Type up schedules and/or short lists of para responsibilities for subs. You don’t want everything to fall apart when one or more of your paras aren’t there.

There are days when you are simply shorthanded. Don’t stress about getting through all of your planned material when this happens. Keep a short stack of “fall back” activities for your students that you can pull out as needed. When possible, use a movie or short film that has an educational tie-in. You can also use related books with or without accompanying tapes/CDs. Finally, consider inexpensive holiday-related craft projects.

Tip: It’s impossible to have a lot of backup plans on hand when you don’t even have time to make regular lesson plans. When all else fails, consult the Internet. There are numerous free ideas and printables for just about every topic imaginable.

Flexibility is key for any teacher. Hopefully, this was stressed in your teacher preparation program. This is especially true for special education teachers. You never know when general education plans will change or when any of your students will be having really good or really bad days due to any number of factors. Don’t be afraid to change your plans around accordingly.

Tip: Keep your lesson plans on a computer instead of a paper lesson plan book. It’s much easier to change your plans this way.

There is nothing wrong with bringing some work home with you. My first year I had very little time alone in my classroom and found it almost impossible go through IEP data and plan IEP goals at work, especially during the school day. Occasionally I found time for these tasks before or after school. I work well at night so sometimes I don’t mind working through data or assembling new materials for an hour or two before bed. Whenever you decide to get work done at home, make sure that you’re taking time off around it. This may involve working with your family so that you can establish a routine that works well for everyone.

Tip: Take at least one or two evenings off and one weekend day off from work completely to avoid burn out.

This goes along with the last piece of advice about establishing a routine. There is nothing wrong with staying late at work sometimes. Taking an extra hour or two once a week can make a huge difference with getting caught up on long term work such as IEP data and/or with lesson planning. However, you shouldn’t stay this late every day of the week. If you find that you can’t be disciplined about leaving on time part of the week without a schedule, designate days that you will and will not stay late.

Tip: Prioritize what you want to get done during your extra time at work and focus solely on those tasks so you can maximize your effectiveness with that time.

I’ve discussed a couple times in this post how it can be difficult to take time to organize all of your new materials when you’re constantly creating new ones and juggling numerous other tasks. Most likely you will have several significant stretches of time during the school year when you can get caught up on a lot of these tasks. I always have a lot of unscheduled time during our conference blocks because I have a small number of students compared to the general education teachers. Usually, I also got a few days during the school year, especially toward the end of the year, when a lot of students are on field trips or at special activities. Take advantage of these times when you can.

Tip: If you know that you’ll have a stretch of time coming up, have one of your paras label file folders for you to speed up the organization process.

I know that this is not an easy task when you’re in the midst of any really stressful school year, especially your first one. But at the end of the year, when you look back through all of the materials that you’ve laminated and Velcroed and all of the lesson plans and other materials that you’ve created, you’ll be amazed at how much there is. You’ll be able to use many of those materials over and over again, saving you a lot of time during future school years.

Day to day, you may feel like you’re not getting a lot done. Hopefully, you will see small steps. Celebrate each one of them. You’ll be amazed at how much progress all of your students have made by the end of the year. As a teacher, seeing this success is one of the things that has kept me going.