5 Secrets to Success in Your New Special Ed Classroom

Step one: Remain calm.

That’s pretty good advice for stepping through the door on day one of any job — particularly so when on the other side of that threshold is an assemblage of middle-schoolers with a range of expectations and a ton of potential, all in need of a steady hand for guidance.

We asked a few veteran middle school special education teachers to offer some advice for those just starting out in the profession. Here are their suggestions.

Set the Tone

Enter with equilibrium, our experts urge. Serenity is infectious.

Amy Jackson, a longtime special-education teacher who has taught from preschool to middle school in several North Carolina communities, says the most important thing she’s learned about creating a healthy environment is that even in the most trying circumstances, one must remain calm.

“I believe my primary job is to provide my students with a place to feel safe, accepted, loved and comfortable to try new things,” she says. A Zen-like approach serves you well in meeting this objective.

“Be patient,” counsels Jackson. “You will repeat yourself, and you will re-teach the same skills. You will teach one skill in many different ways before a student ‘gets it.’” Embrace this, and show no frustration; then “savor those moments when your student does get it.”

And make your special education classroom an inviting atmosphere, says Danielle McIntosh, a special ed teacher at North Tapps Middle School, outside Seattle. WA.

“While part of my job is to help kids increase their academics, I also strive to make my room a place they want to visit each day,” she says. “I try to create a fun, caring atmosphere where we celebrate success in and out of school.”

Be Prepared

Preparation is critical, McIntosh says. And for teachers, such as herself, who provide support for classroom teachers, that involves gathering information that helps her colleagues better understand each special education student’s needs.

In the fall, McIntosh provides teachers with a binder containing each student’s individualized education program. “I also include a checklist, or cheat sheet, that lists the most common classroom modifications and who gets what,” she says.

These suggested accommodations might include seating the student close to the teacher or away from distractions, or a request that tests be read aloud. McIntosh says the teachers she supports appreciate the input and sometimes offer their own suggestions. This collaboration increases student achievement even further.

Beth Erber, a resource teacher in North Carolina’s Buncombe County Schools, agrees that this type of coordination pays off. “My advice for new special education teachers would be to make time to co-plan with the teacher as much as possible,” she says. “Know the standards and the curriculum for your students so you’re aware of the scope and sequence of the material that will be covered. This will help make modifications of material easier.”

Certainly be prepared, says Jackson, but also be flexible. “Always have plans and materials ready, but accept that on most days things are not going to go according to plan. There will be behaviors to deal with or other issues that will take precedence over math or reading.”

That’s fine though, “because learning social skills and how to function independently and interact with others are the most important things you will teach your students,” she says.

Connect to Real Life

McIntosh tries to illustrate for her special ed students how what they’re learning connects to their lives. “Some of my students come from very difficult homes,” she says. “Who cares about the difference between an acute and obtuse angle when you've got all that going on? But then I remind myself that education is really the key for these kids to create a different life for themselves.”

A student might ask, “Why do I need to know this? How will this help me in life?” McIntosh points out jobs in which you might actually need to know whatever “this” might be. For example, in construction it’s helpful to understand angles.

Have Fun

The best way to keep your students engaged is to make what you’re doing fun, which also aids in keeping yourself engaged.

“Teach lessons that you enjoy,” says Jackson, and keep redefining your methods. “Your students learn best by hands-on activities,” so always consider interactive approaches. She encourages special ed teachers “to be silly with your students. Laughing while learning and doing tasks means you’ve had a great day.”

Seek Help When You Need It

Yes, you’ll make mistakes along the way, Jackson says. Be OK with that. “Do not expect to be perfect, and forgive yourself,” she urges. “The first few years teaching are really difficult, so don't make it harder on yourself. Reach out to veteran teachers in your school and have a support system. Have a person in administration you are comfortable speaking to and asking for help from.”

And along the way, McIntosh adds, “celebrate the small successes,” such as multiplication tables being memorized or an incident-free day. No matter how seemingly trivial, they’re each, in their essence, an important accomplishment.</p>

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., a North Carolina–based consultancy specializing in innovative approaches to educational change. In addition to working in hundreds of schools and teaching in thousands of classrooms, he is also an award-winning writer and educational software developer. Follow Steve on Google+.

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