My first day as a special education resource room teacher was a disaster! I remember sitting in the school psychologist’s office and asking, “So, what am I supposed to be doing?” I knew how to write an IEP and was well versed in theories of learning. What I lacked was a tactical plan. They didn’t teach practical day-to-day skills in my graduate program. I envisioned students coming to my room throughout the day and great learning taking place. What I didn’t envision were the hours I would spend creating a pull-out schedule that would not interfere with the students’ lunch, recess, specials, etc. or the running around and scrambling that I would be forced to do because I had failed to plan ahead. Here are some tips that I wish I had known prior to my first day as a special education teacher.
1. Review all of your students’ IEPs before the first day of school
It is extremely important to know the needs of the students on your caseload prior to the first day of school. Pay special attention to the minutes on the services page so that you have a rough idea about how to begin creating your pull-out schedule. Also, look for any behavioral or health concerns that you may need to address on the first day of school. Read over the present levels sections in order to get an overall picture of the needs of your students.
2. Create your schedule
It is never too early to start working on your schedule! Your schedule will change multiple times throughout the year. However, you need to have a general framework to know where to begin. Think of your schedule like a giant puzzle. It’s very similar to those math problems that go something like, “Johnny sits next to Jill, but can’t sit behind Jenny. Jenny is across from Jack, but not behind Jeff. Jeff sits next to a girl. Jill is behind a boy.” Although your head will be spinning during the process, it can be done!
I created my schedule on a whiteboard listing grade levels across the top and blocks of time down a column on the left side. I used sticky notes with students’ names on them to fill in the schedule. The sticky notes were color coded (ex. blue for math, green for reading, yellow for writing) so that I could easily see the subject areas and make sure that I had students scheduled into the right groups. This method worked great because I could easily move students around on my schedule when it wasn’t working.
Obtain lunch/recess schedules as well as the schedule for specials (art, library, PE, music, etc.). Block off these times from your master schedule so that you know you cannot pull certain grade levels during these times. Ask for schedules from each grade level so that you know when each subject is being taught. It is best to coordinate your schedule with the general education schedule so that students don’t miss other subject areas when they are in the resource room.
You may also need to account for inclusion support in your schedule. If you have paraeducators who provide these services, make sure to create their individual schedules. Again, it is best to collaborate with classroom teachers to find out what time support is needed.
Finally, make sure to schedule yourself for a lunch and a prep time. I have worked with teachers who routinely skip lunch and see students from bell to bell. You will burn yourself out if you do not create moments in your day to regenerate. Additionally, special education teachers have a tremendous amount of paperwork and testing that needs to be completed. A prep time is critical to make sure that you have time built into your day to accomplish the mountain of tasks that need to be done outside of working with students.
3. Make a calendar with IEP due dates for the year
When you are reviewing your students’ IEPs, make a note of the annual due dates. I entered into my calendar all of my students’ IEP dates for the year planning to hold the IEP meeting two weeks before the due date. This allows time to reschedule if a parent is unable to attend. Mapping out your IEP due dates allows you to see if you have months that are too full. You can always schedule IEPs early to space them out and alleviate having too many in one month. Also, look at the three-year reevaluation dates and make note of any reevaluations coming up during the school year. You may want to coordinate with your school psychologist so that the reevaluation and IEP dates align. This saves you from having to hold extra meetings.
4. Meet with your paraeducators
If you have paraeducators, it is a good idea to meet with them prior to the school year so that you get to know them and build a strong team. They often know very useful information about the students on your caseload and can fill you in on things that worked in previous years. Before my first year as a special education teacher, I planned a summer luncheon with my paraeducators. I thought I was doing a great job developing rapport and creating a unified team. However, I failed to get their input in the scheduling. I spent hours creating a schedule after the school year had already begun only to be informed by several of my paraeducators reasons why it wouldn’t work. If I had obtained their input prior to forging ahead, I would have saved myself a lot of time. Use the people on your team to help you be successful!
It is important to establish open communication with your paraeducators. Brief weekly meetings (15-20 minutes) work well to disseminate information and provide short trainings. Although time is scarce during the school day, with paraeducators typically working the same hours, or less, as the students’ school day, meeting together as a team helps to establish cohesion and allows your paraeducators to receive the support that they need. In addition to group meetings, you should touch base with each of your paraeducators individually throughout the week. This allows them to discuss with you concerns or questions that they may have in a private setting.
5. Create an organizational system
The amount of paperwork in special education can be overwhelming. It is important to create a system to organize paperwork and work samples that document progress toward IEP goals. I kept all of my students’ IEPs in binders by last name. The binders allowed me easy access to an IEP without pulling out the entire file. Each student had a special ed. file that contained previous IEPs and other pertinent documents. These were housed in locked filing cabinets in my room. My students also had working files that contained a portfolio of their work samples. These samples were how I collected data on their IEP progress.
It is extremely important that you keep work samples as evidence of student growth. As a second-year special education teacher, a parent filed a due process complaint with the state alleging that her child’s IEP goals were not being followed. She agreed to mediation. The parent’s advocate questioned me about the IEP progress reports that I had sent home. With my knees knocking and my heart pounding, I reviewed the work samples one by one that backed up the scores I had reported on the progress report. Without these work samples, it would have simply been my word against the parent’s. The mediator agreed with the school and the complaint was dropped. Working files can be difficult to stay on top of, but a lifesaver if you are ever called into question about a student’s progress.
6. Get copies of the class lists and meet all of the classroom teachers
Your registrar should be able to give you copies of the class lists so that you can determine who your students’ teachers are. Once you have this information, you should make copies of the IEP information sheets (sometimes called an IEP summary sheet) and distribute these to the teachers before the first day of school. Generally, teachers are not given the complete copy of the IEP. However, check with your school district about their procedures. It is important that you meet briefly with each teacher to make sure you answer any questions they may have about their students. You should also have the teachers sign and date something indicating that you provided them with a copy of the IEP information. This is to cover yourself should anyone question whether or not you informed teachers about their special education students. Make sure that the specials teachers are also provided with the same information as the classroom teachers.
7. Create a letter introducing yourself to your parents
One of the best things that you can do to ensure a smooth first year is to build positive relationships with your parents. You may want to send home a letter introducing yourself to your families. Classroom teachers often send out letters detailing their homework policies, expectations, and contact information. This information goes a long way in establishing a partnership with your students’ families.
8. Think through your classroom
Before students ever set foot in your classroom, think through the environment that you want to create. Most resource rooms have areas for individual work as well as areas for small group instruction. Make the layout of your room conducive to how you want your class to function. Carefully think through the look and feel of your room so that it is a place where students want to belong. Before the beginning of the school year, you should also work through the procedures in your room. The following questions may help in this process.
- How will students know what to do when they enter your room?
- Where will students turn in completed work?
- What materials will students need to bring with them?
- How will students get your help?
- What will be your classroom rules (responsibilities)?
- What will be your reward system?
9. Plan your communication
It is very important to make a plan for your communication with parents and teachers. Think through how often you plan to communicate and what method works best for you. Try to develop a system for contacting parents to share positive news. Many parents complain that they only hear from their child’s school when there is a problem. A positive note or phone call home not only makes your student and parents feel good, it also demonstrates that you care. You may want to think through and develop a plan for the following questions.
- How will you communicate with parents?
- How will you communicate your students’ progress to their teachers?
- How will classroom teachers communicate concerns with you?
Open communication is critical to the success of your students. By having a plan in place, you take the lead in ensuring that your students have support from the entire team.
10. Write down why you decided to become a special education teacher
As the school year progresses, you will most likely go through times when you question your decision to enter the field of special education. Before that happens, generate a list of reasons you went into the profession. Refer to your list to give you energy on days when you feel depleted. Remember, you are not alone (even though it feels like it sometimes) and you ARE making a difference!
Two very effective means of learning are to learn from our own mistakes or to learn from the mistakes of others. It is obviously less painful to learn from others! Hopefully, these 10 tips (taken from one who learned the hard way) will help you as you begin your wonderful journey as a special education teacher!