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Survival Tips for First-Year Special Education Teachers


It's no secret that the first year of any teaching job is almost always the hardest. I believe that this is especially true for special education teachers. There is nothing that I learned in any of my undergraduate or graduate courses that truly prepared me for surviving my first year of teaching special education.

I'm not trying to discount what I did learn in my college courses, but I also believe that all teaching programs should equip their future teachers with more real life skills. This skill set includes survival tips for their first year. I wrote this article specifically with special education teachers in mind. However, many of these tips are applicable to all first-year teachers.

Every New Teacher Needs to Read This Article

Create a very basic filing system and start putting lesson plans in it. Don't worry about organizing beyond that during your first year of teaching.

Create a very basic filing system and start putting lesson plans in it. Don't worry about organizing beyond that during your first year of teaching.

Don't Feel Bad If You're Planning Day-to-Day

I know that all teaching programs strongly advise against day-to-day planning, so a lot of teachers are very apprehensive about adopting this frame of mind, even when it's very temporary. No, it isn't the best strategy. I'm not advocating for this as a successful long-term teaching strategy. However, I also know what it's like to jump into a brand new school with a brand new group of special education students.

It is virtually impossible to start planning past the next day until you are able to evaluate your students, which is a time-consuming process, even when things go smoothly. After you have completed evaluations, your initial prep time is so time-consuming that you simply don't have time to do anything past what you need for the next day.

Tip: When you're writing lesson plans your first year, save all of your materials. Even if you don't take the time to organize them and just stick them in a folder, it will make it much easier to use them for long-term planning in your second year.

Don't Worry About How Your IEP Data Looks as Long as You Have a System That Works

It's wonderful to have rubrics to keep track of all of your data. I was fortunate to inherit some rubrics that I could continue to use with the students who had been in my program the year before I started. If you don't have any rubrics or other explicit guidelines written in your IEPs for goal progress monitoring, don't worry about how your data looks, especially during the first couple months. Make sure that you are working on all goal areas and saving all of your data.

Tip: Make rubrics or other progress monitoring tools for students as you write new IEPs throughout the school year. Many rubrics can be used over again or can be easily adapted for new students, making this process easier each subsequent year that you teach.

Network With and Seek Support From Other Special Education Teachers

If you work for a larger district, hopefully you'll be able to collaborate with other special educators in your district on a regular basis. If you work for a smaller district like I do, you may have to seek support elsewhere. I've been able to meet other special educators in this area through my graduate courses. You can also network through re-certification courses, workshops, conferences, and online forums. Having a support network is a huge asset in any career. Even when you aren't looking for resources or advice, sometimes just having someone there to listen can make a big difference.

Tip: Get contact information from special education teachers you meet outside of your district. You never know who may be able to provide any number of resources in the future.

Only Buy or Make Materials You'll Use Right Away

I have stressed this point in many of my other special education articles as well. (See additional articles at the end of this article.) It is very easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all of the things that you'll need to make or buy throughout the course of the entire school year. It's important not to let this get you down and to instead focus on what you'll need for the next week or two. It's also important to prioritize and budget realistically. You will not be able to make or buy everything that you want for your classroom in the first or even second and third years of teaching. Make a purchasing plan for the next few years.

Tip: Laminate all materials that you'll be using over and over again so they will last longer. Save all worksheets that you modify. This will also help you with your long-term planning. I will share more information in future articles about how I organize all of my modified comprehension materials.

If you have some good aides in your classroom, they can help you put together these types of materials.

If you have some good aides in your classroom, they can help you put together these types of materials.

Use Your Paraeducators/Teacher Aides for Day-to-Day Repetitive Tasks and Assembling/Making New Material

I have a tough time delegating tasks to others. Anyone who has worked with paras knows that their abilities range greatly. Hopefully, you're lucky enough to have one or two that can handle simple daily tasks and/or assembly work. Designating repetitive tasks such as setting up visual schedules and Velcro calendars will free you up to get other things accomplished. Getting assistance when you're making materials will help the process go a lot more quickly, too.

Tip: Type up schedules and/or short lists of para responsibilities for subs. You don't want everything to fall apart when one or more of your paras aren't there.

Don't Feel Bad About Having an Occasional Fun Activity, Especially When You're Short on Help

There are days when you are simply shorthanded. Don't stress about getting through all of your planned material when this happens. Keep a short stack of "fall back" activities for your students that you can pull out as needed. When possible, use a movie or short film that has an educational tie-in. You can also use related books with or without accompanying tapes/CDs. Finally, consider inexpensive holiday-related craft projects.

Tip: It's impossible to have a lot of backup plans on hand when you don't even have time to make regular lesson plans. When all else fails, consult the Internet. There are numerous free ideas and printables for just about every topic imaginable.

Never Fear Flexibility in Regular Day-to-Day Situations

Flexibility is key for any teacher. Hopefully, this was stressed in your teacher preparation program. This is especially true for special education teachers. You never know when general education plans will change or when any of your students will be having really good or really bad days due to any number of factors. Don't be afraid to change your plans around accordingly.

Tip: Keep your lesson plans on a computer instead of a paper lesson plan book. It's much easier to change your plans this way.

Plan to Take Time Off at Home—Bring a Realistic Amount of Work Home and Don't Work on Anything Else

There is nothing wrong with bringing some work home with you. My first year I had very little time alone in my classroom and found it almost impossible go through IEP data and plan IEP goals at work, especially during the school day. Occasionally I found time for these tasks before or after school. I work well at night so sometimes I don't mind working through data or assembling new materials for an hour or two before bed. Whenever you decide to get work done at home, make sure that you're taking time off around it. This may involve working with your family so that you can establish a routine that works well for everyone.

Tip: Take at least one or two evenings off and one weekend day off from work completely to avoid burn out.

Don't stress out about getting filing done every day. Maximize the opportunities that you do have. If you're working at home, maybe your pet will cheer you on through the process.

Don't stress out about getting filing done every day. Maximize the opportunities that you do have. If you're working at home, maybe your pet will cheer you on through the process.

Plan When You Will and Will Not Stay Late at Work

This goes along with the last piece of advice about establishing a routine. There is nothing wrong with staying late at work sometimes. Taking an extra hour or two once a week can make a huge difference with getting caught up on long term work such as IEP data and/or with lesson planning. However, you shouldn't stay this late every day of the week. If you find that you can't be disciplined about leaving on time part of the week without a schedule, designate days that you will and will not stay late.

Tip: Prioritize what you want to get done during your extra time at work and focus solely on those tasks so you can maximize your effectiveness with that time.

Save Filing for Long Stretches of Free Time, Such as Conferences or Field Trips

I've discussed a couple times in this post how it can be difficult to take time to organize all of your new materials when you're constantly creating new ones and juggling numerous other tasks. Most likely you will have several significant stretches of time during the school year when you can get caught up on a lot of these tasks. I always have a lot of unscheduled time during our conference blocks because I have a small number of students compared to the general education teachers. Usually, I also got a few days during the school year, especially toward the end of the year, when a lot of students are on field trips or at special activities. Take advantage of these times when you can.

Tip: If you know that you'll have a stretch of time coming up, have one of your paras label file folders for you to speed up the organization process.

Remember That It Will Get Easier

I know that this is not an easy task when you're in the midst of any really stressful school year, especially your first one. But at the end of the year, when you look back through all of the materials that you've laminated and Velcroed and all of the lesson plans and other materials that you've created, you'll be amazed at how much there is. You'll be able to use many of those materials over and over again, saving you a lot of time during future school years.

Day-to-day, you may feel like you're not getting a lot done. Hopefully, you will see small steps. Celebrate each one of them. You'll be amazed at how much progress all of your students have made by the end of the year. As a teacher, seeing this success is one of the things that has kept me going.

Essential Special Education Resources

More Special Education Articles From the Author


Barb K on May 07, 2019:

Try being a 66 year old substitute teacher (regular education), and being told you will ONLY be there until they can get a full time teacher. 160 school days later....

Karen on April 25, 2018:

Is it common to feel like a first year teacher every September?

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 06, 2016:

I have been there and completely understand! You're definitely not alone. It's very overwhelming to have absolutely no lesson plans ready for a group of students you don't even know. Start small, and build from there. It will take time to assess their knowledge and skill levels and determine what types of activities will work best for their learning styles. Don't worry about any sort of long-term planning in the beginning. If you have any other questions, let me know. Best of luck!

Karen on December 05, 2016:

I am about to graduate college with a degree and a teaching certificate in special education and I am absolutely terrified to go into my first class. I feel like I have good classroom management, but I have no idea how to start lesson planning with students I do not know and different levels of functionality. I am terrified. Any advice to get rid of these nerves?

Heidi Reina from USA on June 11, 2015:

Lots of great advice for virtually any first-year teacher. I remember the stress was enormous and getting organized seemed like an insurmountable task.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 18, 2014:

I'm glad to hear that, Vicki! Thanks!

Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on March 18, 2014:

These are great tips for other teachers, too! I still do at least some planning from class to class. Sometimes it's just one day at a time. Great article!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 06, 2014:

I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this article! Best of luck. :)

Education is Special on January 06, 2014:

As a special education veteran teacher (28 years), I really enjoyed reading this article! It's a good reminder and reinforcer for my own behaviors. I am one of those who does not balance work time with home time. I hope to practice some of these suggestions starting with the new year. Thank you!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 02, 2013:

I'm so glad to hear that! Thanks!

Nadira, India on June 02, 2013:

Really it's a boon, for a new teacher no matter wherever they are with this humble world of innocence, this hub will really help us a lot. Thank you very much and continue to help us ...............

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 19, 2013:

I'm glad that you thought that this article was so helpful! You're right that it's not a common topic for journals or websites. I really wish that more people did address it.

LensMan999 from Trans-Neptunian region on May 19, 2013:

Thanks for Random creative for this hub. You have included the needful tips for better teaching. It is very useful for the first year special education teachers, as this topic is not common in journals or websites.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 17, 2013:

Thanks, ytsenoh! I hope that this article is helpful for your daughter. Best of luck to her.

Thanks, Cathie!

Hamza Arshad from Pakistan on May 17, 2013:

very insightful information . Too good

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on May 16, 2013:

Thanks for writing this hub. My daughter mastered in special education and works with children of autism in an elementary school, so I'm happy to share this with her. You provided a lot of helpful and insightful advice.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 30, 2013:

Thanks, Cyndi! That's awesome. I look forward to reading your article.

Thanks so much, pinto!

Subhas from New Delhi, India on April 30, 2013:

Very sound tips and great survival tips and very nicely and articulately outlined.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on April 30, 2013:

Sound advice. You gave me an article idea, actually. Your experiences that you relate I know will give a lot of insight to prospective teachers. Well done!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 17, 2013:

Hi Gemma, check out my article about this topic. Best of luck!

gemma on April 17, 2013:

Hi i have an interview at a SEN school for pupils will mild to moderate autism, what type of questions do you think i may be asked? Thanks x

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 09, 2013:

Minc, my heart goes out to you. The first couple years of planning for special education are really tough, especially when you have students with such varied goals. I promise that it does get easier as you develop more curriculum and get comfortable writing goals that fit with that curriculum. Best of luck to you!

minc on February 09, 2013:

It is February and this will be my second week in a special ed class for kids with intellectual disabilities. I know i have just started but I have always doubted if this was the life path for me. Now that I am in the mist of it all I am especially feeling like this is not for me. How do you handle creating a curriculum that satisfies all of the individual goals for all the kids? I have 14 kids. Thank you for any help and apologies if I sound like I am whining. ..

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 28, 2012:

Georgia, those are all excellent points. There is a huge learning curves for different school districts, especially in different states. I don't know any teachers, no matter how much experience they had, who didn't feel overwhelmed by Alternative Assessment sometimes.

Georgiakevin from Central Georgia on October 28, 2012:

I want to add that after teaching in 4 school districts in 3 states that your 1st year teaching special education is your biggest challenge but your first year in each school district especially when you change states feels a lot like when you begin teaching. Each state has their own terminology, each district has their own way of doing things and the feeling of being overwhelmed is almost as much as it was the 1st year. Truthfully even after 15 years especially when dealing with the Alternate Assessment I still feel overwhelmed at times.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 28, 2012:

Thanks, FreezeFrame! That's great that you have written about this topic, too. There is not nearly enough information about it for teachers. I agree that it is one of those experiences that will make you fearless about many things that life throws at you. You're right that it's so important to take time out for yourself and not make work and other people your top priority all the time, regardless of how long you've been teaching.

FreezeFrame34 from Charleston SC on October 27, 2012:

Great advice!

I too wrote a hub about my first year of teaching!

If you can make it through your first year of teaching special education, you can make it through anything in life!

My best advice was to take time out for yourself; we all overwork ourselves and I always put others before me!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 28, 2012:

Thanks, Cyndi! I appreciate that.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on September 28, 2012:

Great advice! I'll share this in several places where I think first-year teachers will benefit.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 28, 2012:

That's great, haharm! Best of luck to you. :)

haharm on August 28, 2012:

This is such a helpful hub! I am so glad that I managed to find it! I am almost done with my schooling to become a special educator! I am definitely going to be taking your advice!

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on July 29, 2012:

Thanks, ignugent! I'm glad that you found some of these tips to be applicable for other types of teachers. You're right that the leadership responsibilities for student teachers and regular teachers are really different.

ignugent17 on July 29, 2012:

Thank you for the tips randomcreative. This is very useful even to teachers who are not handling special education. It is true that before we graduate we have to do internship but it is really different if you are the manager of the classroom. Useful and voted up.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 04, 2011:

I'm glad that this was helpful for you. Hang in there!! I've been through it, and it does get easier.

NORA32 on October 04, 2011:

THank you for this post. This is my first year as a Spec. Ed. Teacher, and I just had my first really bad behavior. Between dealing with behavior, and collecting data, I was so overwhelmed with the thought, "How am I going to do this all!"

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 15, 2011:

Thanks so much!

Ingenira on September 15, 2011:

Very well-written, with plenty of useful advice, to help the teacher to keep her work organized and reduce unnecessary repetitive work.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 27, 2011:

Thank you for the feedback! Any teaching job has its challenges. It's good to have survival skills, especially for the first few years.

injurycase from North Pearl Street, Albany, New York on August 25, 2011:

teaching special children really conquers challenge especially with their changing behavior. It is good for the teacher to be prepared always and have various activities that suits to the child. thank you so much for your hub. I just love reading it.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 18, 2011:

Thanks Giselle! I hadn't considered a hub on that topic, but it would definitely be worth writing. I'll add it to my list!

Giselle Maine on May 18, 2011:

This hub is really helpful for teachers. Have you considered also writing a hub about do's and don't for parents of a special ed child who is about to attend school for the first time? I think such an article would be super-helpful for parents of a special ed child to know what they can do to emphasize school-taught skills at home too, and also to know how much parent communication with a teacher is OK and how much is not enough or too much???

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 13, 2011:

The teaching profession definitely gets harder every year! I'm so glad that this could be helpful for tackling some of these newer issues.

Georgiakevin from Central Georgia on May 13, 2011:

This day an age when so many many poiticians and so much of the public has made our jobs harder, it means a lot to have some options to make them easier. Your post does just that.

Rose Clearfield (author) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 12, 2011:

Thank you so much! Your feedback means a lot to me. I think that a lot of people go through the new teacher phase all over again when they switch schools/grades/positions. Thanks again and best of luck with the remainder of your school year!

Georgiakevin from Central Georgia on May 12, 2011:

As a fellow special educator who has taught for 15 years, this is an incredible hub! It is not just good advise for 1st year special educators but for all of us no matter how long we have taught. Reading your Hub was good reminder for me. I have 6 days left of my school year so will read it again come July just before school starts again. I have taught in four new schools in 3 states. It didn't matter how long I taught, the first year I taught at each new school, I felt like I was teaching my 1st year, especially in Georgia. i wish I had your Hub to have read then.