After years of coursework and student teaching, you've finally been offered a job as a first-year special education teacher. This is what you prepared for.
So, now what do you do?
It's not uncommon for special education teachers to feel extra anxious facing their first year of teaching, as they have additional, unique responsibilities to complete in order to have a successful year. To keep you afloat, here are some tasks you should tackle first.
1. Review All IEP Due Dates
For special education teachers, timelines and deadlines are critical. In addition to planning daily lessons and teaching, special education teachers are responsible for holding annual Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings and three-year reevaluations within certain timelines. Missed deadlines can lead to IEPs that are out of compliance, which can mean potential citations from your district or state.
Further reading: One Teacher's Path to Special Education
At the start of the year, go through each student's IEP and mark your calendar with their due dates. It's helpful to know ahead of time and plan for the months when you'll be busiest with meetings and paperwork.
2. Make Positive Contact with Parents
As a first-year special education teacher, developing positive relationships with your students' parents will make your job easier. Start your year with a phone call or email to each parent, asking to learn more about their child. Not only will this provide valuable information, but it also lets parents know you view them as partners, and will start your relationship out on the right foot.
Establishing positive rapport at the beginning of the school year is greatly appreciated, and it will make parents more receptive should you need to contact them about less positive news in the future.
3. Review and Organize Your Students' IEPs
Before school starts, you'll need to review all your students' IEPs. Become familiar with your students' goals, areas of need, accommodations, and service minutes. Most special education teachers develop a binder or other system to organize and keep all IEPs easily accessible in one location. A helpful organization tip is to create one-page summaries of your students' IEPs that can be shared with any other teachers that might teach or interact with your students during the day.
If you're an elementary or resource room teacher, you'll develop your schedule based on students' service minutes and needs. If you're a high school or middle school teacher, who teaches a particular class or subject, you'll want to make sure your students' goals align with the curriculum you are teaching.
4. Create a Game Plan for IEP Meetings
Running your first IEP meeting can be stressful. As a new special education teacher, I felt intimidated and unqualified leading my first meeting. But over the years, I've learned the best strategy to combat these feelings is to come prepared.
Develop an agenda to keep you on track. Have a good understanding of the student's current IEP and come with a plan for the new goals and services you intend to propose. Creating a new IEP is always a team decision, but bringing a tentative plan will make you appear prepared and professional, leading others to trust and respect you.
5. Lean on Your Mentor
As a new special education teacher, hopefully your school will provide guidance through an assigned mentor. Seek out that person and ask a lot of questions. Ask if you can observe one of their IEP meetings, and have them attend your IEP meetings until you're comfortable conducting them on your own. Most veteran teachers enjoy helping new teachers, and many are paid extra to do so.
If your assigned mentor isn't helpful or doesn't have time to help, you may need to seek out someone else. Being a new special education teacher can feel lonely and isolating at times, so take initiative and ask for the help you need.
6. Find Your Work-Life Balance
From the moment school begins, you'll feel like you're trying to outrun a train. Many new teachers try to maintain this impossible pace, but you should be conserving your energy. Teaching special education is not a job you can do if your mind and body are depleted. Designate a time each day when you stop working—even if you have more to do. Take time to rest and recharge. Set boundaries and expectations for yourself, and don't spend all your free time working. Developing healthy habits from the beginning of the year will not only help you feel better, but will give you the energy and stamina you'll need to thrive.
Further reading: Survival Tips for the Special Education Teacher
All teachers, even veterans, get the first-day jitters. Completing these tasks will help you feel more prepared, relaxed, and ready to meet your students.