It’s Back to School time! Woo-hoo! I’m itching to get back into my classroom, and I know many teachers are already working hard with their students. Since the back-to-school routine has been swirling around in my brain lately, I thought it would be timely to post a few tips for special education teachers, to get a head start in the right direction and make this school year a positive one for you and your students!
Organization is Key
One of the least appreciated aspects of being a special education teacher is the amount of paperwork involved. The IEPs I write are, on average, thirty pages long. My district uses an IEP software writing program, but each IEP is unique to each student (hence the “I” for Individualized).
Weekly progress monitoring, parent communication, and documentation for EVERYTHING can very quickly become overwhelming. Adopting someone else’s system isn’t necessarily the answer, since any organizational method needs to work for you. But understanding the importance of organization is a special education teacher’s lifeline.
Parent Communication (aka, “Sure, I have time to write a novel”)
I’ve seen a change over the past eight years in how parent communication is handled. When I began teaching, it was standard practice for parents and teachers to use a composition book for daily communication between the teacher, parents, and an instructional aide for the most involved students. I didn’t like this practice for several reasons. First, I was busy enough without having to write down everything that happened during the course of the day. Second, although it would have been easier to have my student’s aide write in the log, it took me out of the equation, and that’s dangerous. And last, I don’t believe that every moment needs to be documented. In my Learning Support classroom, my students are not the most severely disabled in our school. They are all verbal, and can answer simple questions from their parents about their day.
With the advancement of technology, and the fact that it seems everyone owns a smartphone, communication is so much less time-consuming for me. I use email and my classroom webpage to inform parents of the ongoing happenings in my room, so they are always kept up-to-date. Parents can email me at any time, and I make a point to respond by the end of the day to acknowledge receipt, and certainly with an answer within 24 hours. The bonus is every email is time-stamped, so documentation is easy. Check out another advantage in my recent post, Calling All Parents.
A Little Light Reading
I choose to read my students’ IEPs closer to the beginning of the school year rather than over the course of the summer. This is mainly because my memory is shot and I won’t remember what I’ve read unless I have a face to place with the information. But it’s also because I understand that my students are people, and I feel it’s important to meet them before I conclude what their unique learning needs are in my room. Students don’t begin attending their Learning Support classes at least a day or two into the school year, so that gives me a chance to meet my students personally before we begin working together.
Establishing a Schedule (aka, “Look out, here comes Mama Bear”)
Each summer I look at our grade’s schedule: lunch, recess, and specials. These three daily activities are the backbone to our overall schedule, and affect everything I do in my room. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, it changes. I’m not at the top of the schedule food chain, and I realize others have it even harder than I do. I work closely with our SLP, OT, PT, and ES teachers to create a practical schedule for all of us that benefits our students.
Over the years, I’ve had really horrible schedules. I’ve also had some really ideal schedules. Can you guess which type helps students learn? You got it. That’s why I have become a bit aggressive in advocating for my schedule. Two years ago, after getting the approval from my team, I went to our assistant principal to ask for a change in our entire grade level’s ELA time. And I’m glad I did. I’d do it again, too. I’m like a mama bear with my students, so don’t mess with me.
Scheduling IEP Meetings (aka, “I didn’t realize I went to college to become a secretary”)
Based on the quote above, you might surmise that I don’t really like scheduling IEP meetings. You’d be right. They really are the bane of my teaching existence. I would rather write ten IEPs than schedule even one IEP meeting. I wrote about it in a recent post, Ever Try Scheduling a Parent Meeting? However, they are a necessary and important aspect of teaching, whether it’s in special education or regular education. Face-to-face meetings are essential to developing a good rapport with parents, and learning more about students’ needs.
I haven’t established a perfect solution (yet, but I’m working on it), but I am going to try something new this year. I plan on trying to schedule all of my IEP meetings at the outset of the school year, in an effort to reduce my stress. I’ll have to update in a later post about whether it works. I’m sure there are a few drawbacks to doing it this way, but I’m going to give it the old college try.
Speaking of Communication…
There are times when I feel out of the loop when it comes to my students’ related services, especially when those providers work part-time. As their case manager, that’s a big no-no. If the therapists are not able to reach out to me to update me on a student’s progress, it’s up to me to keep informed. After all, the responsibility falls to me.
Special educators do not have free reign over their curricula, and should be well-informed of the general education standards and expectations. I have a unique situation where I am able to meet with my grade level team every day to chat about small issues (such as a temporary change in schedule or an email from a parent), and weekly to discuss more significant matters (like curriculum planning).
It’s important to establish a routine at the beginning of the year to reach out to these two groups of people, before the tidal wave of the school year pulls you under!
“Life is Good”
This is my phone case, and it’s a daily reminder of my belief that, really, despite everything, life is good. I am fortunate that my own daughters do not have a learning disability, they are healthy, and will be off to college in a few days. My husband and I survived parenting teenagers (so far), and have a closer relationship now than when we married almost twenty-one years ago.
Why am I rambling on about this? Because life is good. Don’t let the daily drudgery get you down. Count your blessings, because in many cases, you’re a heck of a lot luckier than many of the parents of the students you work with (notice I said “luckier,” not more blessed!). Their job is twice as hard every hour of every day. If you start the year with a positive outlook, and work hard at keeping that outlook throughout the school year, you will indeed have a good year.
Attitude is everything.