Nothing prepares you for that first day of teaching special education.

I can still remember calling my wife during my lunch break 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; the job 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 have never found a good response.

This remark while well-meaning assumes a couple of things:

1) Special education students require a lot of patience, to which I would say, any teaching position that necessitates interaction with kids requires a lot of patience

2) People who work in special education have a superhuman ability to work with “those kids.” This is probably too harsh and getting off topic. Here is 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…

  • you should always keep an extra set of clothes in the classroom.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
  • you are the “decisive element in the classroom” and have “tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.”
  • 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 not to 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.
  • special education 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 has challenging behavior 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 for my classroom.
  • systematic teaching, applied behavior analysis (to get at the “why” of behavior) and focusing on communication skills…works for all students
  • 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 more than 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