I’m officially one year out of college and I am loving my life as a special education teacher, but man there are times when I feel completely unprepared. This is a list of the 10 things that I wish someone would have told me about being a teacher.
There are two types of special education teachers. There are those that chose to get their endorsement based on someone’s small-minded comment that “anyone with a special education endorsement gets a job right away.” Then, there are the people who chose to get a special education endorsement because they genuinely want to work with the population of students with disabilities. If you are in this spot because you just wanted a job right away, I can imagine you won’t like the job for very long. However, if you’re in this position because you love the kids, then you are sure to find yourself in an extremely rewarding job.
Sometimes you are really stressed out. I’m not talking the normal “oh, I have so many lessons to plan.” I’m talking “I have a group of 6 kids and they are all at different levels and I have to accommodate for each and every one of them and keep them all on task and sometimes we switch tasks every 5 minutes just so that the kids are engaged. Oh, and I don’t have a prep period because I use that to teach social skills and sometimes I don’t have time for lunch.”
Your heart will break – in more ways than one. Not only do you feel sad when you hear about the heart wrenching things that happen at home with these kiddos, but your heart breaks at school when the kids act up because of it. Kids tell me things that are truly unimaginable to me. I grew up in a position where I was fortunate enough to always have clean clothes, food to eat, and a roof over my head. I was never once concerned growing up that I would go without. Sadly, working in a school with a low socio-economic status means that kids go hungry and they wear the same sweatshirt for 3 weeks in a row without washing it. It’s not their fault, and you do what you can at school to make sure they’re going to survive. If that means that the kids eat cereal for breakfast that I bring from my house, or take an occasional nap during class because the night before was chaos, then that’s just what happens and you are flexible enough to handle it.
Everyone thinks you’re the expert even if you aren’t. If someone is struggling with a student who has ADHD, they will come to you and ask you how to handle it. Even if you have no idea, you’ll get in contact with your AEA and figure out how the heck to handle this kid that isn’t even on your roster because it’s important to someone else. You will implement plans for kids that you will never work with, and you will become an expert on lots of things simply because your co-workers have a misconstrued idea of what you know about special education. In the long run, this is a huge benefit, but when you’re clueless, it’s overwhelming.
You talk to parents a lot. I can only think of a handful of days this school year when I didn’t have some form of interaction with parents. I email, make phone calls, text a mom who works the night shift, have IEP meetings, juggle custody schedules and manage to find out which parent a kid is with before calling and expressing concerns. I am in constant communication with parents.
Being organized is more important than you might realize. You’ve got to progress monitor 10 kids several times a week, and you have to organize their information so that you can pull it out and present it at any time for any teacher or parent that might want it. If you can’t find the data, you’re probably going to need a new way to organize your data. Any instructional decision that you make is normally based on data and graphs for your students, so if you’re not organized and you aren’t plotting your data, you’ll never know exactly what to do to help your kids learn.
People will crap-talk your kids, and it will make you mad. You work for several hours each week to try and give your kids the skills necessary to function well in the general education classroom. Sadly, your student with ODD will act up and even your best interventions will fail. You will get blamed. Try not to take the complaints personally because in reality the teachers probably don’t understand the extent of the student’s disability, and you will continue to try and get the student to act appropriately in the classroom.
Sometimes the most ridiculous things will motivate your students to do the best work. I once had a student that would work for Skittles. One Skittle would motivate that kid to read more than anything I’ve ever seen. One. Stinking. Skittle.
Your heart will overflow with pride when your kids achieve things that they thought were impossible. I had a student read 72 words per minute and he was so excited with how much his graph went up that he started to cry. I cried too. Group hugs were plentiful and we were jumping up and down. The smallest things can be huge achievements for your special education students, and by golly, you celebrate every single thing. We throw parties when kids test out of skill building, and we have celebrations when kids are exited from our program. We are proud of our success.
You are important to more people than you realize. The kids thrive on your positivity and in a world of chaos they see your consistency as something that is highly important. The students turn to you with their problems and open up to you because they trust you. You are powerful. Use the power wisely.