Advice for New Special Education Teachers
Surviving the First Few Months of School
By Glenn Schmidt, elementary special education teacher, Sun Prairie,
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
|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
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.
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.