Tips and Tricks From a Special Education Teacher
Perfect hair and dress, lunch packed, materials organized, room cleaned, and you have been standing at the door of your classroom for half an hour eagerly waiting on your students to arrive. That’s right! Those kids are YOURS! They finally arrive and you start your first official day as a teacher. There are ten or so kids staring at you. So, what do you do now?
1. Teach routines and expectations
Write an actual lesson plan for each routine just as you would any reading or math skill. After you teach the routine or expectation, have the kids practice it. (I like to start off teaching an attention signal: When I flip the lights off and on, I want the students to immediately become silent. We practice this. First, I have my kids whisper to each other. I flip the lights. We do this several times and we make it a game. I time them to see how quickly they can become silent. I reward them for following my request quickly. (Class marbles can add up quickly for a fun reward such as no shoes, extra recess, etc.)
2. Be prepared
I know this sounds simple, but having extremely prepared lesson plans and materials will prevent a lot of problems in your classroom. If students are busy learning, they won’t have time to be bored or misbehave.
3. Be flexible
Students have bad days, teachers are tired, there’s a fire drill, and so many other variables can change our day in a second. Always have a back up plan, well — actually — several. You will need an activity you can pull out when your students are over stimulated to help them calm down. You will need an activity that focuses on social skills and can be easily adapted to cover a variety of topics such as role play, drawing our feelings while listening to music, or simply have students draw/write, “I feel…” and use the day’s event as a starting point. You will also need a basic reading, writing, math, science, social studies lesson plan that can be pulled out and used at a moment’s notice. I know this sounds like a lot of prep work, but it will save you so much work later on. When your lesson falls apart, or you have a student having a meltdown and you can grab a backup activity with everything you need at your fingertips, you will feel so much better yourself.
4. Treat Each Day as a New Day
You have to treat each day as a new day. I know how hard this is when you watch a student have an epic meltdown, which involves throwing and breaking everything they can reach. It’s only human nature to become upset. You can hold your students accountable for their behavior, but all consequences need to occur as soon as possible. This means the student cleans up the mess they made and apologizes to classmates. It does not mean that when the student arrives the next day, you say, “I hope we don’t have another problem like we did yesterday. I’m really tired to watching you throw a fit.” By allowing students a fresh start each day, you are allowing them to learn from their mistakes and an opportunity to make better choices. Think about how you would feel walking into a group of people who watched you totally lose it. How would you want them to treat you? You would want to be treated with grace and forgiveness, not bitterness and anger.
5. Make a Comprehensive IEP Calendar
Special Ed teachers have a ton of paperwork. It’s best to stay on top of it. At the beginning of the year, I set up my calendar and mark each student’s IEP due date. Then, I mark a month before each IEP in my calendar. This gives me plenty of time to schedule the meeting, complete my testing, and prepare all my paperwork for the meeting.
6. Establish a Strong Curriculum
A good curriculum can make all of the difference in your class. I love using Reading Mastery for all levels of my students. The first level really focuses on phonics. The second level still focuses on phonics, but also works on comprehension. The third level is my favorite. It uses both fiction and nonfiction texts. It really makes students think logically and put information together to draw conclusions. When I am able to get students to a level where they are able to work independently in level three, I can start moving them back into the general education classroom for reading! Huge success!!
I also love using SRA Connecting Math Concepts. I use the first three levels. The first level begins with writing numbers correctly and counting and moves through kindergarten standards. I really love how all of the levels spiral through the skills so that students are constantly reviewing and building on skills. It really helps students master grade level skills.
I have yet to find a writing program that I love, so I decided to make my own program. I used what I have learned over my seventeen years of teaching and put all of the best parts of the different programs/trends/etc. together.
Teaching students to write is hard because there are an infinite number of possibilities for students. I tried to make the writing process as concrete as possible and narrow the choices to make it easier for my students. Last year was the first year that I used my No Prep Writing Curriculum with my class and loved the progress I saw. At the end of the year, over 80% of my students were able to diagram a sentence (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, prepositional phrase) and write a paragraph on a given topic. I was beyond thrilled! I can’t wait to see what they do this year!
7. Focus on Positive Behavior
Be positive. Try to focus on students who are following expectations and reward them. Try to reward students four times as often as correcting their behavior. This doesn’t mean you ignore all inappropriate behavior, but there are many behaviors we can ignore. A good trick is to find someone who is doing what you want and compliment them. When a student sees you compliment a peer and then changes his/her behavior, complement them too. This will increase positive behaviors in your class without you fussing at anyone. This helps create a positive working environment for everyone, staff and students.
It’s the last day of school. You didn’t have time to pack lunch, but everything else is ready for the perfect last day. You stand at the door and wait as anxiously as you did that first day of school. Now the kids bound into the room and hug you good morning as they chat away. You stand back and look and wonder how an entire year passed in a blink of an eye. You will make it through the day. It will be bittersweet for more reasons than you can count. After the last student leaves, you think, “Now what?” You have a million ideas of everything you want to change and improve for next year. You will make a list of at least twenty different things you want to create for your class. Pick One.
Yes, only one. Pick one and make it awesome. Work on it all summer and don’t feel bad if you don’t get to #2 on your list. When school starts back, you will have one subject completely ready to go. Then you can focus your planning time on all of the other things you have to teach. Don’t worry, you will continue working on your list next summer. Teaching is, after all, a life-long adventure!
Hang in there, my friend! You are making a difference.