Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tips for New Special Ed Teachers: 7 Tips for the Beginning of the Year

As part of this tips series, there are a lot of great tips about setting up the schedule and working with paras and I know there are lots more to come.  I'm in the midst of a series on classroom materials on my blog and then will segue into classroom setup. While was thinking about all that on a plane, I suddenly realized that I wanted to talk about some of the little things that we might not think about telling new teachers to help them get off to a good start at the beginning of the year.  So here goes...

1.  Put the time in up front.  As we talk about the need to set up the classroom, make the schedule, and everything else that needs to be done, we sometimes forget to talk about why putting the time in at the beginning of the year is so important. I know that in the midst of all the meetings and professional development that are scheduled before the students start, time gets squeezed pretty tight.  However, the more time you put into organizing the classroom now, the more easily things will go as the year progresses.  I set up multiple classrooms every year. Some I set up new.  Some I reset because they have been struggling.  Often it's because they weren't set up effectively to begin with.  The time you spend making your class schedule, your staff schedule, setting up your physical environment and developing instruction for your students is the basis upon which everything that happens throughout the year will rest.  You may make a plan and throw it out after the first day, but it will give you something to come back to and make changes.

2.  Get to know your students.  I know there are teachers who like to get to know the students in person before reviewing their paperwork.  However, without reviewing their files (including their IEPs) you can't know what you need to have ready for them on the first day to start out successfully.  At the very least read their IEPs, their last evaluations, and any medical information that would be pertinent.  The information sheet that Lisa shared might be useful for this to make sure you haven't missed anything.

3.  Start instruction with reinforcement.  Especially at the beginning of the year, start out by getting to know what is reinforcing for your students.  There are a variety of ways to do this, but the easiest is just to pull out things they might like and see what they do.  This serves two purposes.  It helps you figure out what might motivate them and it associates you with things they like. Associating yourself with reinforcers means that you become reinforcing by yourself and eventually the extra stuff can be faded out.  It's a great way to build a relationship and start out the year.

4.  Make sure you have the required equipment. As you review your students' files, highlight the items you need to have to support the student's program. These might include a communication system or a speech-generating device for a student to communicate.  It might also include a specific curriculum (although these often aren't included in IEPs).  If he was using a specific reading curriculum, find out where they left off last year.  Don't know where it is, track down last year's teacher or the ESY teacher.  If it's in the student's IEP, you need it to implement his program.  Similarly if you don't know how to implement the strategy, the curriculum or use the equipment listed in the child's program, find out before the child gets to school.  I know it seems like a lot to do, but it goes a long way to building respect from administrators and trust from families that you will do what the student needs when you make this type of effort.

5.  Problem solve.  Caitlin's post about paraprofessionals pointed out how important they are as members of the team.  Sit down at the end of the first day, with them and any other people involved in the class, and talk about what worked and what didn't work.  Do this for the first few days of school at least so you can tweak things to get them off to a smoother start more quickly.  Solicit that information from the others working in the room because you can't be everywhere at once.  Then decide to try a change and talk about whether it worked at the end of the next day.

6.  Write it down.  To facilitate the problem-solving process, keep a pad of paper (or your information recorder of choice) somewhere in the center of the room and write things down that you think of that you need to make, that you need to change, or just that didn't work.  Encourage all the staff to do this.  When we set up a classroom, we do this the first two days we run it and then use that list to help the problem-solving.  Whatever happened at 9:30 in the morning will not be as memorable at 3:30 in the afternoon, so keep a running list.  That way it's also easier to divide up the tasks of what needs to be done to be ready for tomorrow.

7.  Recognize that things will change.  After investing all this time at the start, it's easy to try to avoid making lots of changes.  However, it's inevitable that as you learn more about your students and what they can and cannot do, as the specials schedule for the school gets tweaked, and the 500 other things that can be adjusted at the beginning of the year, you will need to make some changes.  This isn't a reason not to plan at the beginning of the year, because changing your plan is easier than trying to put a plan in place when what you had was chaos without a plan.  So, just like with everything in almost any classroom....

What other tips do you have to offer new special ed teachers or what questions do new teachers have?  Share them in the comments!

Until next time....
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