Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Things I Wish I Knew My First Year Of Teaching Special Education

a picture of the front of a circa 1930's school building in Pasadena, CA

Nothing prepares you for that first day of teaching.

I can still remember calling my wife during my lunch break (hey…I taught in California then…breaks were mandated) almost in tears…saying “I have absolutely NO idea what I am doing”.

But approximately two thousand instructional days later…I can say with some amount of certainty…it gets easier.

When people find out that I teach special education, I usually get the obligatory comment of “you must be a very patient person”. To which I never have found a good response. This remark while well-meaning assumes a couple things…1) that special education kids require a lot of patience…to which I would say…any teaching position that necessitates interaction with kids requires a lot of patience and 2) people who work in special education have a superhuman ability to work with “those kids”. Okay…this is probably too harsh…and getting off topic. Here are a sundry list of things that I wish I knew my first year teaching special education (in no particular order).

I wish I knew that…

  • I needed to keep an extra set of clothes in the classroom…for myself. You never know what kind of fluid or edible material you might find flying around
  • you should always look to the student’s interest first to try to gain their attention and to provide motivation to access their curriculum
  • you should always presume competence with your students…it is the least dangerous assumption
  • it is possible to be a self-contained special education classroom teacher AND be an inclusive education advocate and not feel guilty about it
  • most general education teachers do not have a clue what you really do or that you are a REAL teacher (it is your job to educate them on everything you can bring to their classroom and the school)
  • all behavior serves a function…even if you think it doesn’t…it does
  • it is okay to not know exactly what you are doing that first year…it goes by so fast…you need help…just ask for it
  • the best resources are your fellow teachers in your local school…everyone has had a first year/first day…we all can relate and we want to help
  • it is extraordinarily hard work (50% of new sped teachers [drop] out [of teaching] in 5 years…75% out in 7-10 years) …harder than you can imagine
  • I would see things that would bring tears of joy to my eyes and things that would break my heart
  • I would care so deeply about the students and their families that I would spend much of my free time working out problems that we had in the classroom
  • teachers often get the short end of the stick when it comes to resources and training
  • you have to advocate for yourself to get the support you need…don’t be afraid to be the “squeaky wheel”
  • you also have to know when you have been beaten by the system…regroup, plan and fight another day
  • I needed to expect the best but prepare for the worst
  • it is sometimes difficult to “manage” your paraprofessionals when you are half their age
  • some of your best friends will be the people who work in your classroom
  • there is most likely not a curriculum…you will have to come up with one on your own
  • there is more freedom than you think in education…you just have to look for it
  • your students are children first…don’t focus on their disability…use that knowledge to help understand them but realize that they are people with hopes, dream, wants and needs
  • inclusion is belonging…create environments of acceptance so that all students are valued
  • simply because a student acts out in a self-contained environment…it should not preclude them from being included with their typical peers
  • a student can earn their way out of general education classes but should never have to earn their way in (Lou Brown)
  • you need to talk to the parents first before you draft goals and objectives…the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a team sport
  • I would spend a lot of my own money on my classroom
  • systematic teaching, applied behavior analysis and focusing on communication skills…works
  • I would constantly be “borrowing” things from my house to bring to school
  • the student’s parent was their first teacher
  • there is no silver bullet…so don’t be afraid to try new things
  • it is exhausting…but exhilarating
  • I would have developed my Personal Learning Network (PLN) earlier (like Twitter #spedchat – #iechat – #edchat and Facebook Groups)
  • you should join a professional organization (TASH and Council for Exceptional Children, to further your education) and sign up to receive Education Week and ACSD newsletters
  • you should never…ever give up
  • I would still love this job after a decade in the classroom

There are obviously more things that I could type…but this post is already getting a little too long. What would your advice be for new teachers in special education?  Are you one of the statistical anomalies…how many years have you been teaching in special education?

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated with a new featured image and information. The school pictured is the actual school the author first worked at in Pasadena, California.

Photo Credit: Tony Hoffarth/Flickr

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Tim Villegas

Founder and Curator-At-Large at Think Inclusive
Tim Villegas has worked in the field of special education and with people with disabilities for over ten years. Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website, thinkinclusive.us. He believes that we can create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates (including self-advocates) to promote ideas, innovation and inspiration to change our world to be more accepting and value each and every human being. Tim lives with his fetching wife and three adorable children in Marietta, GA.
  • Olga Lingo

    I’m starting my 9th year. I love my job but have a very hard time dealing with violent aggression. That’s the one reason my days are numbered in the field. If I could guarantee that there would be no violent students I would stay with it until I could retire.

  • Tim Villegas

    Olga,

    I completely understand. I have had my fair share of students with challenging behavior. I hope that you are getting the right support to know how to help that student. When there is little or no support it is a recipe for someone getting hurt. All the best!

  • Dee Lesneski

    I am a parent of a student with a disability in the public school system. WE ….. feel your pain and share your happiness. Thank You for our children’s education.

  • Valerie

    Going on my 6th year and having a difficult time. my philosophy on inclusion is similar to yours, but I work in a district that did not support inclusion. I think that’s crazy yet it is real. I don’t know what to do about it and it mentally and emotionally drains me.
    So for new teachers or those job hunting: know your districts’ philosophy, as well as any departmental philosophies.
    See your students as the wonderful creatures they are. more capable than you could ever imagine.
    Be ready to cry- tears of joy and tears of pain.
    Communicate with your parents! Listen to their heart, not just their words.
    make goals for your self and check your progress to, it helps ease stress to see growth.

  • Danna

    Going on 14 or 15 years, I can’t remember. I have wanted to quit and have tried to quite for some of the same reasons above, but I am still here. Being a Special Ed teacher is often lonely for me because I really don’t belong to any department at my school, although I do teach English. However this year is different because I have created a PLN and I have learned so much from so many people. I have been inspired and energized by my summer of learning…all on my own through Twitter. So, I can’t wait to start the year!

  • Shannon Norton

    Starting my 17th year…but this is SO dead on!! All I can say is it IS worth it.

  • 11th year. Exhausted. LOVE the kids and teaching and learning. Tired of all the red tape, paperwork, unfollowed mandates and operating standards, fighting for things other kids get…

    As my former principal said though, “just keep fighting the good fight.”

  • @tchlrn_ak

    Starting year 8…maybe now I feel like I ‘know’ what I’m doing.. or at least what I am supposed to be doing. Best advice…ASK QUESTIONS.

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  • Deborah Bennett

    Here is my ready response to “You must have so much patience!” Patience comes from understanding. The more you understand something or someone, the more patient you are. When I find myself becoming impatient, I know I need to step back and learn something so that I understand what’s going on.
    I understand how these kids learn and think and feel. I understand communication disorders and learning disabilities and autism and behavior disorders and mental health disorders, inside and out. So what looks like patience is really knowledge. The good news is, anyone can learn about these things. Patience isn’t a virtue. It’s a product of knowledge and empathy.

    • Tim Villegas

      This is really great. I will have to say that next time someone says that to me. 🙂 I’ll be sharing this on Twitter.

    • Chelsea

      Wow! I love that!

    • Michelle Lee-Reid

      What a great response to a comment that we get all the time! I have to stop myself from cringing everytime I hear it. I am in my 22nd year of teaching special education and still love it. Knowledge and understanding are definitely what we need.

      • Tim Villegas

        Michelle.

        Thanks for the comment. I think at the heart of it all…we need understanding.

        Tim

  • The PLN is key for people in almost any industry — continual learning is essential.

    While a number of items on your list surprised me, the lack of curriculum stood out most. The change of clothes might be the best advice on there, though. 🙂

  • Ali

    Great list! I can relate to “it is sometimes difficult to “manage” your paraprofessionals when you are half their age”. As a twenty-something business owner I agree that it is difficult to be heard and taken seriously at times. You must always prove yourself competent first.

  • This is a great list. I especially love and agree with the concepts of “presume competence” and “focusing on communication” — But the whole list is awesome! Off to share on my Facebook Page. 🙂

  • Lydia

    First year!! Great list!! Thanks for support, wonderful reminder…you are very right…the year goes by quickly. It is 7:30 p.m. and it’s time for bed to begin another day tomorrow!

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  • 30+ and now retired for 5 yrs! Whoo Hoo I began my career as a speech therapist and then went into teaching Learning Disabilities in a small elementary school. I then moved into a Literacy Coach position for 8 yrs and finally ended my career back in a Developmental Delay K-1st class. My greatest challenge however has been the premature birth of my grandson in 2007 and diagnosed with Cerebal Palsy. I thought I knew so much about special needs children and their parents but little did I know just how LITTLE I actually knew until special education came home. I have now “walked a mile in their shoes” which I wish I could have known not only in dealing with the child but in my relationship with most of my parents. I prided myself on having excellent rapport with the majority of my parents but what I never truly understood was this: Those parents LIVE with that special needs child ALL the time. They don’t get to clock out, go home, do their thing until the next day. A special needs parent is always ON the clock and these parents need more empathy than we as special education teachers are inclined to give. THAT”S what I wisI had known.

    • Tim Villegas

      I like how you phrased that…when “special education came home”. Your words are so true. It can be very easy to dismiss how hard things are at home for our parents. Great thoughts!!

  • Stacy

    Would you mind if we reprinted this article in our newsletter for SPED teachers (with appropriate attribution, of course)?

    • Tim Villegas

      Stacy,

      That would be fine. Very happy for you to share it. Thanks!

      Tim

      • Stacy

        THANK YOU!

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  • Chanchal

    I’m starting my first day tomorrow! I couldn’t be more excited or nervous. I’m excited to see what is in store for me this next year and how I will react to everything.

  • Nichole

    Starting my first week! I am also excited and very nervous (I have been having nightmares since I was offered the job.) Thanks for the advise. I’m looking forward to new teaching and learning experiences.

  • Haley J

    I am about to start my first year of teaching as a special education teacher. It’s a little terrifying especially since I was hired 5 days before the first day of school. Anyone have any advice? Particularly for the first day?

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