For those of you who don’t know, I started my first year as a special education teacher this year. My first year was an unusual one, because I wasn’t completely certified when the school year started. I had my masters degree in special education, but I was still waiting for everything to fall into place so that I could be certified in the state of Alaska. I ended up basically subbing for myself for the first quarter until my certification became official. Now that I’m halfway through the school year, I finally feel like I’m organized enough look back on the things I’ve learned. Here are my 8 main takeaways:
- Check in with your general education teachers often. Especially if you’re new, because they might not check in with you since they don’t know you yet. After checking in, they would sometimes tell me about problems that the student was having. My checking in allowed us the opportunity to collaborate on solutions for the problem. Sure the suggestions wouldn’t always work, but they sure worked better than nothing! (And some did work, so…)
- Dress up for all of the spirit days. Go all out. The students will love it. I walked around all day on Halloween, dressed like Princess Peach and feeling like a moron, and yet every single student I walked by lit up when they saw me. My outfit required mid-level effort for Super Hero Day, which was more than any other teacher; and the kids loved my “Bat Woman” costume. (I also had a cape on, but you can’t see it in the photo.) It’s so worth it.
- Take data. All the data. This has been a struggle for me at times. I’ll do the things, but not always write down the stuff. And then, I’m scrambling at the end of the quarter to re-test and write down the results so that I have evidence to prove the things I’m saying to parents. It would be less of a hassle if I wrote it all down the first time instead of going “Yay! They’re doing it!” or “Aw nuts, we need to focus on this more.” and moving on. One thing I’ve found helpful is to make a data sheet for each student with “yes/no” in regards to each of their IEP goals, along with an area where I can add the date and the results. That way, it’s all in one place, and easy to compile. This concept works for both academic and behavioral goals.
- Let your TAs take some of the data. I’ll give my TAs a sheet with the students’ behavioral goals listed, and have them record what they see. I don’t see students in their general education classroom, and this frees up my need for relying on the gen ed teacher’s input. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still ask for it, but if the teacher never responds to my email, or doesn’t give me specific details, it’s nice to have something else to pull from when developing a full picture of how the student is doing in the school.
- Be flexible. I’ve had super planned out days that were basically made invalid because of a fire drill that took time out of the day, and then set certain students off until they went home. Take a deep breath, recover what you can of the remainder of school, and keep going. You can make up stuff tomorrow.
- Noise cancelling headphones are life. I’m serious. I really think only 3 of my students actually need-need them. And yet, a lot more request them for assemblies, field trips, fire drills, etc. If you don’t have any on hand, talk with your librarian and see if you can grab some old, broken computer headphones. Chop off the wires (making sure nothing is exposed) and you’ve got something that will do the trick in a pinch. I have about 10 of these “noise-cancelling” headphones, and my students are happy. We just had some budget money come in, and I ordered legit ones, but my headphone hack versions work well enough for now.
- Don’t be afraid to go backwards. Sometimes, I’ll find that my students have gaps in their knowledge base. Occasionally, they’ll forget something we’ve learned. I’m lucky enough to have the flexibility of being able to pause my intended lesson and review for a few days (or a week, or a month in one case…) to get them back to where they need to be. It can be frustrating, because I’d prefer to keep moving forward, but sometimes going backwards is what the student needs.
- Grade throughout the week. Or, at the very least, every week. If you don’t have to keep grades (I only do for 3 students.) then find time each week to sort through your data. Add it to any spreadsheets, calendars, documents, and then file it away. Keeping up on it is so much better than having a giant stack to go through at the end of the quarter. And then, you can spend your teacher work day doing fun stuff like bulletin boards and sanitizing your classroom!
There’s probably more, but those are my top 8 takeaways. I’m looking forward to another two semesters of trying to keep everything organized and my head above water!