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The demands of being a special education teacher are unlike any other position in schools--support from school administration is essential

5 strategies for first-year special education teachers

The demands of being a special education teacher are unlike any other position in schools--support from school administration is essential

By Jamie Sowers, Ed. D, Clinical Special Education Advisory Team Director, BlazerWorks May 23rd, 2023

Key points:

  • Communication is key for all those involved in special education
  • Don’t forget to think creatively and look at the big picture when framing students’ goals

If you’re heading into your first job as a special education teacher, congratulations. Not only will you be able to use the knowledge you developed as a student to make a difference in children’s lives, you’ll be doing it in the most needed position in U.S. schools.

Two-thirds of schools with staffing shortages said special education is the hardest area to staff, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

I’m sure the excitement of landing a position was mixed with the fear we all face when starting a new job. The demands on special education teachers are unlike any other position in schools, and because of shortages, you may be asked to tackle a bigger role than expected when you start.

While your job will be thrilling, frustrating, and exhausting, sometimes all on the same day, I do know there are successful strategies that can help you make the needed adjustments to be effective while at the same time maintaining a necessary work/life balance.

Try these 5 strategies to help you succeed in supporting special education teachers:

  1. Keep the big picture in view

Special education students’ work is directed by their individual education plan. Whether a student is new to special education or just renewing an annual plan, this is the time to make sure their IEP reflects the support they need to learn as well as meeting all legal requirements. Make no mistake: this is a heavy lift, but it’s vitally important. Pay attention to the student’s current standardized tests scores and subjective evaluations, but use this information to create a reachable goal. Remember, these goals don’t have to be all academic. For a student with severe ADHD, staying seated 80 percent of the time in a classroom setting could be an awesome achievement. Trust that meeting non-academic goals such as this one will also drive the student’s academic achievements.

  1. Stay on top of paperwork

It’s best to think of your job in two parts. First is the actual teaching, setting up classroom rules, and finding your style of classroom management. This is the part your college probably trained you well to tackle. The second half, especially for a special education teacher, is paperwork. IEPs are legal documents and they come with a plethora of dates and deadlines. Your best friend here will be a robust digital calendar. You not only have to know when every student is due to have their IEP renewed, but you also need to know if they are slated for a reevaluation or other assessment during their year. IEPs require a wide variety of information from you, parents, and other teachers. Write reminders to collect this information ahead of time to avoid last-minute panic.

  1. Remember your life/work balance

Starting any teaching job can be overwhelming, and the demands on special education teachers add to this burden. Let’s be honest: Your job is very important because students are expected to learn during their time with you. Knowing that all students don’t progress steadily and seeing a frustrated child in front of you every day can evoke two very different feelings. I counsel new teachers that they need to know themselves and know what they need to recharge their batteries. Don’t let the sometimes hectic and frustrating job overwhelm you. Identify your tribe in school–an informal group you can use to vent, brainstorm, or just come together to admit the work is hard. You’re going to make mistakes, but just like all your students, if you can learn from each one by the end of your first year, you’ll be a markedly better teacher.

  1. Be efficient

It’s no surprise that sometimes new teachers overwork themselves, leading to burnout. Learn how to pace yourself. As a principal, I literally used a timer to make sure I didn’t work too long on any one task. Also, don’t discount taking a break. Sometimes using part of your planning period to do something such as breathing deeply can make you more productive the rest of the day. Another trick I used as a principal was to make a weekly to-do list that I finished every Friday. It allowed me to get a great start on Monday while remembering my most important tasks for the week. There’s one caveat to this strategy, though: Sometimes a school can pile on more work than any one person can complete. If you find yourself working until 9 p.m. every night, chances are your workload is too much. Talk to your principal to create a game plan together that makes sense for you and the school.

  1. Communicate

This may seem obvious for someone whose job is literally teaching children, but I mean to learn to communicate with your peers. Sharing data with classroom teachers or leaders can help those people see a student clearly and that information can lead them to help with the student’s education. Also, learn your district’s digital tools for progress monitoring and use these to help share progress reports. Following this technique will also help you gather data when the time comes to renew an IEP.

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About the Author:

Jamie Sowers, Ed. D, is the clinical special education advisory team director for BlazerWorks. He was the former special education director for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico. He’s also been a teacher, coordinator, and principal before joining BlazerWorks. He currently lives in Colorado.

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