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Words of Wisdom for Special Education Teachers

Teaching is hard.  Teaching special education is hard.  I have no doubts that teaching general education students is hard, but I can only speak about my experiences so far.  

This week, I'm going to have my first student teacher.  This is her first experience in a classroom will be observing and starting to take on some instructional duties.  It really made me think about what are the most important things I wish someone had told me.

So hear you have it, a random blog post about my jumbled up thoughts.

1.  You can only do the best you can do and that's it.  This has been so hard for me.  My students often come to me super low.  Learning and school can be really hard for my kids.  I've beat myself up about the slow progress, lack of progress, or behavior problems I've seen in my students.  I'm my worst critic and take their success and progress very personally.  There's so many things out of my control, but I can only do the best I can with the resources and schedule I have available.  Honestly, that's all you can do, too.  Don't beat yourself up over things.

2.  Every day NEEDS to be a new day with a fresh start.  This can be SUPER hard if you have a challenging student with behavior issues.  If you can some how greet that student with a positive attitude and let go of what happened yesterday, you will have a starting point for building a positive relationship with the student.

3.  Teach those procedures and routines like nothing else.  It doesn't matter if the students spend 30 minutes or the entire day in your classroom.  They need to know what to do from the second they walk in the door.  I try to make sure my kids have something that must do immediately.  That gives them a purpose for being in your room.  Idle time is time that behaviors you don't want often begin.

4.  Yes, you will need to differentiate for your students.  And yes, you will often have students at various levels.  However, try to group them as much as possible.  It is possible to differentiate so much that you're doing nothing well.  If the differentiation makes you so overwhelmed that you can't keep a handle on the amount of time, instruction, or work it's not working.  I've tried that and ran myself ragged.  There's only one of me and so many of them.  What you do has to be physically manageable for you.

5.  Celebrate those small successes, even if they're really small.  Your students have probably had a long history of struggling and failing.  That takes a toll on their self-esteem and confidence.  

One of my 2nd grade students started this year knowing 8 sight words.  On Friday, he knew 15!  We've worked hard for those 15 words!  I practically threw him a party.  Since he was so excited, I gave him my lowest decodable to read.  I was keeping my fingers crossed that he would do ok.  And you know what, he did great!  Needed some small help but he did it almost independently.  Then he looked at me and said this:

I seriously almost cried!  Best words a student has ever said to me right there.  

6.  Have patience......lots of patience.  This is a hard area for me, too.  You will probably reteach and practice the same thing many times.  Your students might seem like they mastered a skill on Wednesday and then on Friday act like they've never even seen it before.  Sometimes I feel like I must be talking in a different language, because it's just not clicking.  These are the times that I need to remember patience.

7.  Sometimes you just have to stop.  Sometimes you have to realize that right now, at this very moment, these kids are not getting it.  Maybe you need to back up and teach some foundational skills.  Maybe their brains are fried.  Maybe they need a more concrete approach.  Instead of forcing through something that isn't working, you may need to just change gears and move onto something else.  Some day I'll have to get real honest with you guys and tell you my bluebird story from my first year of teaching.  It was not my proudest moment of teaching, and I always think about that lesson when I see the kids just aren't getting it.

There you go!  Nothing ground-breaking, but I wish someone had said these things to me.


  1. Angelia, thank you so much for this post. Those are great words of wisdom, not only for your student teacher but for all of us! I'm starting my new school year tomorrow and I'm going to keep all of these in mind!

    And what a fantastic story about your kid who is going to become a reader! It made me tear up; I can only imagine how happy it made you feel! Congrats to you and him!


  2. Great suggestions! Sometimes it just the simple things and reminders that make the biggest difference! Hope your student learns well from you!

  3. I love this post! My favorite is the "fresh start," not only daily, but hourly! I think all of this advice would work in everyone's interactions with each other - not just special education, or even teaching. I had a student teacher last year who started extremely confidently and seemed to leave a little shell-shocked (oops!). Good luck to you and your student teacher! Jen

  4. I have taught Special Education all of my 15 years of teaching. There's nothing else I'd rather teach. What I love about it is- every day is a new day. My students struggle with processing, memory delays and pretty significant learning issues. Sometimes I am teaching them a skill, the same skill, for weeks on end until they get it and once they get it- we review it, often. I had a student teacher last year who was great, but she was very serious all the time. I had to finally tell her that she should be having fun teaching and it's OKAY if something doesn't go right- there's always tomorrow or an hour from now, to try it again, in a different way if needed. It's okay to be overwhelmed but just remember to always enjoy yourself and enjoy your students and have fun- because teaching Special Education is fun. It's also frustrating, but the fun outweighs the frustrating and the kids are so worth it and when they meet a goal or simply read a word they could not before- you celebrate! I have another student teacher starting in October, I am excited to work with her, and hopefully remind her that while hard, it's so worth it!

  5. I love this advice and if someone would have told me some of these things when I started going to school for teaching I probably would have gone straight for my bachelors in special education. It was one of the best things I ever did!

  6. Excellent advice! I am so glad you will be able to share your wisdom and love with a student teacher!

  7. Thanks for reiterating what I feel on a daily basis! All of these "words of wisdom" apply to reading specialists, too. I teach struggling readers, special needs, students, students with OHI, students who are ESL, students with speech and language disorders, students with memory/processing issues, and students that have not qualified for special education because the are low ability/low achievement.

  8. Teaching special education IS hard! I have my third student teacher this year. As much as I love the help and learning new ideas from someone else, I often feel more pressure to make sure I'm doing my best so that my student teacher learns everything she needs to! I definitely need these words of wisdom right now! Great advice!

  9. What a great post! Teaching is hard and I'm glad to know that I'm not the only who struggles with perfection and patience...I've had some not so proud moments as a teacher, but I realize sometimes it's because I am the one who is expecting too much!

  10. Thank you for this post! I am a student teacher and this wisdom was helpful :)

  11. The young boys ended up absolutely stimulated to read through them and now have unquestionably been having fun with these things.
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