What I've Learned Through Teaching Special Education For a Month

If you aren’t familiar with the type of children that I teach, they’re in a class called “EC Reading Resource”, which translates to not quite inclusion, but not severely handicapped either. They’re the kids who need love, support, and those extra small classes to help them succeed. Their ‘least restrictive environment’ is out of the regular-ed classroom, and in a separate setting with less students and a specially trained SPED teacher.

When I took this position people responded with wide eyes and silent mouths. Their congratulatory statements were sprinkled with doubt… well, not doubt, but sympathy. I could tell they felt for me. I’ve said this in previous posts, I hated those reactions. When I accepted this Special Education position I was overflowing with joy and excitement. I love working with the kids who need special attention. In a regular education classroom I don’t get the opportunity to reach the struggling students because I have 25+ other bodies to attend to, while also juggling PLC meetings, parent-teacher conferences, AIG material, professional development, etc etc.

Now don’t get me wrong, EC is a whole different ball game. In this position I’m juggling three different grade levels, IEP meetings, mountains of paperwork, specialized behavior plans, constant schedule changes, and three different subject matters. It’s equally as hectic. On a (relatively) normal day my schedule looks something like this:

7:35am: Arrive at school, turn computer on, pull up attendance, get out supplies for the days lesson.

8:00-8:40: Attend to my jumpstart kids (6th grade, 16 children). During this time they read a class novel, work on homework, or take SRC tests.

8:45-9:40: My 6th grade Language Arts children come in the door. We start the class with 15 minutes of silent reading, and complete a lesson that usually involves close reading, group work, and lots of probing for answers. This is my largest class, which makes it my most hectic.

9:45-10:40: In come my 8th graders. A much smaller class (about 11 students) but full of attitude. This is my group that works the quickest and thrives off of reward. I start them off with a reading or writing activity, and because of the super small class size, I do a lot of whole class instruction.

10:45-11:30: Now it’s time to leave my room. I head down to a restrictive environment and help co-teach a Social Studies class. These kids are not tested during EOG’s, so their lesson is usually simple, craft, or video based. These students work extremely hard on math and Language Art skills, so they get a more relaxed Social Studies session from my co-teacher and I.

11:30-45: A quick planning session. I use this time to straighten up my classroom, prepare my lunch, and check my mailbox in the office.

11:45-12:20: LUNCH. A chance to rest my brain.

12:20-1:00: More planning. During this time I’ll work on plans for the following week, set up for my incoming class, and respond to emails. This time flies by, and I usually don’t realize it’s time for me to stop grading papers until my 7th graders are walking in the door.

1:00-2:00: Another small class, but with 7th grade. I’ve taught these kids before in my 7th Grade ELA position, so I feel pretty comfortable with them. These kids work well in groups, because they play on each other’s strengths. More on this later. By this time I’m exhausted and ready for the day to be over.

2:05-3:00: Now it is time for, hands down, my hardest hour of the day. 6th Grade Science. I’m not planning lessons for this class, or co-teaching really, it’s just an inclusion class and needs a set of EC hands in the mix. These kids are wild, done with school, and completely rowdy. I spend the hour pulling out students who are disruptive, need extra attention, or help completing the assignments given. It helps the regular-ed teacher work with the rest of the class.

3:00-3:30: I’m back in my room wrapping up my day as kids get dismissed for car rides, busses, etc. Occasionally I’ll have a student come in and perch themselves on the couch in my room, but today I have my door shut and locked. It’s been a long day.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I’m tutoring from 3:30 – 5:30, and then my day is finally finished! See, told you things could and would be just as hectic. But, here are some of the things I’ve learned a month into my Special Education job;

1// SPED is about building relationships: One of my April goals was to start building professional relationships. I had no idea how vital this was in my position. Reading resource can get pretty isolated. You’re in the encore/elective building, around other EC teachers, but they’re on a completely different schedule than you. You’ve got three different grade levels, so you don’t have a set Professional Learning Committee, and there’s no set of teachers that you completely fit with. That’s okay though, because building relationships can happen if you just keep your door open and make the effort to engage with colleagues. Asking for help was the way I started. I spent my first week drowning and desperately gasping for air. I felt like the majority of my peers were against me, and by Friday I was D O N E with the job. But then I realized that I’m a 23 year old who took on a Special Ed job after training for a regular-ed classroom for 5+ years. I wasn’t going to know everything, and I had to lean on the people around me. It wasn’t their job to make sure I was staying afloat, I had to ask for the dang life jacket first. Since then, I’ve been trying to pick people’s brains, ask for advice, check in regularly, and be as helpful as possible to my co-teachers.

My example: This actually happened last week. There was a fight (ahh the joys of pre-teen boys) and one student was feeling wildly unsafe. He voiced this, and to be honest I had no idea what to do or how to handle the situation. Although I felt calm, I didn’t want to say or do anything that would make the situation for the student worse. I decided to reach out to the 8th grade Math EC teacher across the hall, who I had previously worked with at Cullowhee Valley School, and ask for her advice on the situation. She made me feel better about the situation and pushed me in the right direction.

2// Children aren’t powerful machines: I enjoy powerhousing through the day. Iḿ constantly moving and thinking, and I can usually go a few hours without a break. I started out my classroom forgetting this. Children aren't built with the mental stamina of an adult, especially not a EC student. They need breaks, they need to breathe. My class is literature heavy (duh I TEACH a reading resource class) which means that my students are reading about 80 percent of the time. This takes so much mental energy from them, especially if they are reading the text independently.

My example: I created brain break passes for each of my students. I cut them out, wrote their name on one, and laminated it. There are three bins on top of my bookshelf (one for each grade level). During my one hour class, each student is allowed to take ONE five minute break. They can do this at anytime during the class period, don’t have to raise their hand, and can completely detach themselves from the classroom. They are allowed to sit on the couch, go out in the hallway, lay their head down, etc. It’s help tremendously, and the students don’t take advantage of them. They understand when they need them and will come back on time. This allows me to continue instruction for the other children without having to hunt down my student on a break.

3// You are the model for a large part of their lives: Sad fact about my job: a lot of my students have DSS in their lives, or don’t have a strong support system at home. School is one constant in their life, and until now they may not have had a positive adult role model in their life. When you decide to become a teacher (not just a SPED teacher) you have involuntarily decided to become the role model in their life. That means you’re not only teaching your students common core standards, you’re teaching them how to respond to anger, act maturely, handle confrontation, as well as be responsible and accountable for themselves. Your actions are absolutely seen by these kids, and you may be teaching them more than you think.

My example: I have a 6th grader who lives with all men (he is a boy). His mother isn’t around, he has two older brothers, and multiple male adults are in and out of his home. Needless to say this kids has a lot of anger and frustration. When I started working with him, I thought about how his family probably responds with a lot of anger and attitude. I couldn’t do that with him. I had to try a different approach. Now, I’m the farthest thing from motherly, but I had to show this kid that I’m on his side. I started with just letting him vent about his days. He has a lot of teachers who dismiss his, or so he says. So I let him vent about how his day is going and what has him angry for the day. That usually gets him to calm down enough to get work finished. Then I just try to show him that I’m going to help him get his work done without threatening to write him up. To be honest, I hear a lot of curse words from him, and he has a huge wall built around him, but I can also tell that he’s warming up to me. Today he made an effort to ask about what we would be doing in class, and showed me what he was growing in Agriculture. Baby steps.

4// These kids are a family: I had been told this by my colleagues after I had taken the job, only to see it in action the first week. Because my position teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, these kids have been together for a long time. They know each other; they are familiar with each others strengths and weaknesses; they know how to both help and hurt one another. It’s a blessing and a curse, so I’ve seen. Coming into a strong bond like that is intimidating, because you run the risk of upsetting a large group, rather than one person. But you’re also given a group of students who are helpful to each other, and to you.

My example: 7th grader #1 struggles with writing, so 7th grader #2 will write down 7th grader #1’s answers for him as he reads and calls them out. They keep each other focused and they both get their work finished on time.

5// They need to be told they are smart: I was placed in AIG or high level courses through K-12. I loved school and was the bomb.com at it. I also knew that’s where I was placed, and I could identify the children who were in lower level classes. It was kind of like the large elephant in the school – no one really discussed it but everyone knew what each students general capabilities were. The same goes for children today in an EC classroom.

My example: My 8th graders were frustrated one day. They dont understand the point of what we are learning, which in some cases I understand - most of them are on the OCS track for high school. They told me they were in the ¨stupid class. Personally, I took offense, but then I stepped back. I decided to show them my interactive notebook and some work that I did with my 8th graders at Cullowhee Valley School (a regular-ed classroom). I showed them that it is exactly the type of thing that I would give my regular 8th graders and that they were doing just as well as they were. It eased the tension a bit.

6// Patience: I grew up with absolutely no patience. Literally zero amount. I have no idea where my patience with children came from, but it has arrived just in time. I remind myself often that these kids are simply that, children. Their frontal lobes aren’t developed, they haven’t mastered decision making skills, and they’re still learning how to be a functioning human. For them, 99 different things will most likely go wrong in one day alone, so you have to be patient and flexible with them. They’re people with feelings, thoughts, and a life outside of school.

My example: I have a 7th grader who verbally tells me when he hates what we are doing. He responds to most assignments and work with grunts of frustration, disrespectful comments towards the work, and eventually will shut down completely. Had a stranger or an adult acted this way towards me, I would surely respond with anger. But in this case I have to remember that he may not be on the social level to handle when things are difficult for him. Fighting anger with anger does nothing for him, so I have to stay very calm, talk to him in a softer tone, and explain in great detail what I need from him, what his choices are, and how I am going to help and support him. It usually works, we’re getting there. 

What are some of the things that you've learned in your years of teaching? What do you absolutely love about your job? How are you celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week?