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3 Survival Tips for a New Special Education Teacher

Frazzled special education teacher

Feeling overwhelmed as a new special education teacher? Then you're normal.

Becoming a special education teacher is like jumping into the ocean. It's adventurous, unpredictable, and filled with all sorts of unique sea creatures. Learning to relax and float may take some time, and looking back, there are a few things I wish I'd known before jumping in. Here are a few tips from someone who has been swimming for a while. 

Throw Out Your Definition of "Done"

You know that feeling you have when you cross the last item off your weekend to-do list or purchase your last Christmas gift? That satisfying feeling of accomplishment because you're actually done? You'll never have that feeling.

In my early years as a teacher, this was a constant source of stress. I desperately wanted to feel done at the end of the day, but no matter how much I accomplished, there was always more work to do. More lessons to plan, more meetings to attend, and more individualized education plans to write—the weight of always having more to do felt like it might sink me.

As a special education teacher, making peace with the feeling of never being caught up is critical to your survival. Each one of your students has unique needs that require an individualized plan. But there's only one of you and many of them. How can you possibly do it all? You have to learn to stop, even if you're not done. Find satisfaction in the work you have accomplished. Learn to accept that you're going to be behind, and know that all teachers feel this way. Never feeling caught up does not mean you're not doing a good job. It means you're a teacher.

Learn to Fend Off Poisonous Puffer Fish

Schools are stressful places. Expectations, requirements, and demands challenge even the most positive and dedicated teachers. However, lurking in every school, there are prickly puffer fish.

Mrs. Stevenson was a puffer fish. She was the school librarian who was a year away from retirement. At times, she appeared harmless, but stress and staff meetings brought out her poisonous spikes, and she never missed an opportunity to complain. Her negativity spread through the school like a virus.

When I was a new teacher, Mrs. Stevenson often cornered me in the hallway, going on and on about the perils of being a teacher. I had the sense that she was trying to recruit me to her side. Her constant rants and negativity left me feeling like a deflated balloon.

In my experience, every school has its puffer fish, but they are also full of wonderful, talented, and inspirational teachers. Seek out these teachers so you can surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. Teaching is hard, so you need to guard yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally against the negative.

It's OK to Feel Overwhelmed

As a special education teacher, you're in charge of your own unique school of sea life. You manage spirited dolphins, calm angry sharks, and motivate stubborn whales simultaneously. Your classroom is an ocean of different needs—each student requiring individual attention.

You plan lessons for swimmers of varying abilities while trying to meet curriculum guidelines, and sometimes it feels less like floating freely and more like performing while an expectant audience is watching you through the glass. Sometimes, it just feels like too much.

Maintaining this heightened level of attention and awareness takes a lot of brain power. It often feels like something might short-circuit in your head. It's the reason why I sometimes forget to take attendance on time. It's the reason why my lessons don't always go perfectly. It's the reason why sometimes we all just need to take a break.

Teaching special education is a huge undertaking. There are days when you're just happy everyone made it through alive. Days, months, and years of this type of focus can be taxing. Rest and self-care are essential if you want to succeed in the ocean. Don't be too hard on yourself. You deserve major accolades for even showing up to try.

There will be days you feel like you cannot dive back into the ocean and days when it's the greatest place to be. Remember those days when you're going through the difficult ones. If you feel like you just can't do it anymore, find someone who will remind you that you can. At the end of the day, the best piece of advice I can give you is to remember Finding Nemo, and heed Dory's wise words: "Just keep swimming."