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Advice for New Special Education Teachers

Surviving the First Few Months of School

Found in: Advice & Support

When I got into special education 28 years ago, it was a conscious decision. I had worked in a residential setting for children with extreme behavioral disabilities. It was fun so I decided to make a career of it.

You, too, may have chosen the special education field, but it's equally likely that it may have chosen you. Nearly half of all special education teachers are not certified in special education and never really intended to work there. So, many of you are in the field because teachers who are both certified and willing to teach special education are in chronically short supply. If you are in this situation, I have some words of advice to help you survive the first few months of school.

Feeling overwhelmed? What should you do first?

The first thing you need to do is figure out where your safety net is. Here's where to look:

  • Principal

    -- Ask him or her how the building discipline plan works (if there is one); what to do if you have disruptive students; where to go for materials and advice. If you haven't been assigned a mentor, see if the principal will set you up with one informally.
  • Union Representative

    -- Find out the name of your local president and introduce yourself to your union building representative. Occasionally a hard-pressed administrator will take advantage of new teachers through such things as giving them additional responsibilities during their lunchtime, assigning extra duties, overloading their class list in a variety of ways, or just not telling them about certain benefits. Make sure you receive a copy of the Master Contract (or whatever passes for the employment rules in your district) and read it. The key here is that if something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't and the union representative can help sort it out. Pay attention to how long your probation lasts and what rights you have during that period.
  • The Teacher Who Knows Everything --

    Every building has one. They like people and they like solving problems. Even the veteran teachers go to them for advice. So should you. Be careful though, there is also a teacher who thinks she knows everything. Everyone avoids her. So should you.
  • Building Secretary and Janitor --

    Yes, it's a cliché, but it must be stated: Never get on the bad side of the building secretary or the janitor. You are foolish if you do not heed this rule. In addition to being able to offer practical building advice, they can be especially valuable if you have just moved to a new community. While many of the teachers live outside the district, support staff members typically live in the community where they work. They can give you local information ranging from where to buy the best pumpkins in the fall to which mechanic can fix the shocks on your Ford Escort.

How should you deal with parents?

There are many different styles that you can use. You have to find out what works for you plus you have to match that to your current group of parents and the expectations of your principal and colleagues. It is very important that your first contact with the parents be positive. Call them or send them a letter right away, especially after you've caught their kid being good. That helps set a good collaborative tone. 

Also, remember that your mindset is likely to change as you go through your career and if you have children of your own. Here are the three phases:

  1. You have no children.

    It is very clear to you how the parents are messing up their kids. You give the parents advice, which they generally ignore. You say it louder and more forcefully each time you see them. They still ignore your advice, but now they are getting a little peeved at you.
  2. You have children of your own.

    You are much more sympathetic to the problems of parenting. Neat solutions rarely present themselves. You speak the same language now because you are in close touch with current cultural icons (e.g., He-Man, Madonna, Kobe) and trends (body piercing, sports jerseys). You give less advice and you listen more.
  3. Your children are grown.

    You have sympathy for parents who genuinely care about their kids, but you don't sweat the small stuff. You know the kids are going to grow up anyway. You just try to minimize the damage. 

Confused about the bureaucracy of special education?

We all are. In my career we've come full circle in what is now called inclusion. Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have expanded to phone book size. And we've cooked up increasingly rich bowls of alphabet soup in our labeling of children.

Try to get past that to what really counts -- your interactions with children. Special education is about helping the neediest of a vulnerable population. Learn to identify those kids in your own way (while staying within legal guidelines) and find ways to use the bureaucracy to help them.

About the Author

Glenn Schmidt has been an elementary special education teacher in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, for 27 years. He is in his second year on the NEA Board of Directors. Schmidt has been a delegate to EI three times and a delegate to its predecessor organization once (the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession).


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.


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