Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years as a Special Education Teacher

15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years as a Special Education Teacher

As a special education teacher, you’ve chosen a two-for-one career. Like every educator, you have state and federal requirements to meet and document, but in your other role as the Individualized Education Program (IEP) manager, you guide one-of-a-kind students toward their individual goals. There is no doubt you’re in for a challenge in this dual role, and it will keep you on your feet.  I’ve learned to save time and energy where I don’t need to spend it so I can use it where it really counts.

In my fifteen years as a special educator, I’ve learned an infinite number of lessons. I know you don’t have fifteen years to read an article, though!  So, here are the 15 most important tools and tips that will help you make it through the day, the school year, and even your next IEP meeting.

  1. Find the right tools – Given your many responsibilities, your survival depends on organization and efficiency. The right tools can shave hours from your workday. My favorites improve both communication and follow-through. They include Google Calendar, Gmail with Boomerang, 3×3 stickies, manila folders, and a small file cabinet.
  1. Use a note-taking template – Documentation is critical, but you can easy to overlook it. Pre-filled templates save time when you’re collecting data. Start with your students’ names, add their benchmarks/goals, leave space for the date, and include a “What Happened” column. Coding your entries will speed your data-mining later. Example: A for academic, B for behavior, C for conversation.
  1. Learn the lingo – Special education abounds with acronyms. But more important is the way you think and talk about your students and families and how they think and talk about themselves. Whether you use person-first language, identity-first language, or something else, be aware of your language. Learn the lingo your students and their families use, and be thoughtful of your own terminology.
  1. Adopt asset-based thinking (ABT) – Some people call this looking on the bright side, but this takes another step into acting on it. Leadership expert Dan Rockwell says that “ABT is more than pie-in-the-sky pretending. It’s a decision to identify and maximize what’s good, right, powerful, and effective.” This frees up more of your think-time for creative problem solving. And I promise, you’ll sleep better at night, too!
  1. Celebrate the small wins – Let’s face it—typical instruction and typical results don’t always fit your students. You have to look for incremental changes and see how they can add up to truly monumental growth. Remember Lao Tzu’s saying: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” There are few places you’ll experience this truth more than your special education classroom.
  1. All behavior tells a story – Ask yourself what a student is communicating though a behavior. Immediately, you’ll see a change in how you listen to students, and better listening translates to better teaching. Instead of trying to change or eliminate a behavior, stop and listen to the story being told through it or the message hiding in it. You may be surprised by what you find.
  1. Feed the wolf you want to grow – You make more decisions each day than most people on the planet. This includes opportunities to decide which behavior to ignore and which warrants attention. Feed the one you want to grow. If a behavior isn’t causing harm to self or others, try ignoring it. Yes, it’s awkward at first, but doing so will save you valuable relationship capital in the long run.
  1. You haven’t known me long enough to be this mad at me – When you receive anger and criticism, you might want to quit. Don’t. Instead, ask yourself if you know this person well enough for them to be so angered by your opinion. The answer is likely no, you haven’t, which means there’s more to their problem than whatever you did or didn’t do. When you realize it’s not your fault, it will be easier shed the negativity and keep going.
  1. Assume good intentions – All the best strategies in the world don’t work if you get too caught up in special education politics. Assuming good intentions helps you “focus on the issue… [and] take [a]different perspective when it comes to conflict.” Practice looking at things from someone else’s perspective. You’ll see that it helps the dynamic and flow of your next interaction with that person.
  1. Parents are people too – Special education is uniquely litigious. Even with your best intentions, relationships can still break down. To survive these heart-breaking moments, remind yourself that parents are people, too. Look for areas of commonality when you seem to clash with a parent. Here’s one: They love their children and want the best for them, just like you do.
  1. Conflict resolution (CR) is a necessary skill… learn it! – You already know about assuming good intentions, depersonalizing, and finding common ground, but don’t stop there! The field of conflict resolution offers you a treasure trove of resources to help navigate your job in special education. Here’s a list of CR blogs to get you started.
  1. Practice self-care – No matter how much you love caring for others, don’t leave yourself out. Given your important role, you cannot afford to do your job if you aren’t able to do it well. Part of taking care of your students means paying attention to yourself, too.
  1. You’re a teacher, not a savior – Remember the proverb about giving a man a fish? It’s directed at you. If they’re to develop their own abilities, the children in your class need an excellent instructor, not a knight in shining armor. Concentrate your efforts on teaching, and you’ll honor your students and their families. After all, learning is the reason they come to you each day.
  1. Build trust One key to career success is building trust with those you serve. In special education, this is easier said than done. However, there are many tools at your disposal. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain is one of them. It’s a great place to start to learn about trusting relationships, why they matter, and how you can create them with dependent learners.
  1. Nurture your team, carefully – Your job is largely about collaboration. Be it the core IEP team or a cadre of support professionals, these are your Make sure the relationships work for you. As you do with students, nurture the positive interactions between team members and try to ignore the rest. This will help you to build the team and make for a more successful year.

For more from Dawn Addis find her blogging and tweeting to inspire at and @daddiseducator.

Do you have any tips to add? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

Photo Credit: Ana_Cotta/Flickr

Dawn Addis_Head ShotDawn Addis is a passionate, fifteen-year educator, with a masters in Special Education. She has taught elementary, middle, and high school. Currently, Dawn is a district-level Teacher on Special Assignment for English Learner and Intervention programs. Dawn’s mission is to share the delight of lifelong learning with students of all ages. Finding her posting and pinning to inspire at and on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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