As a first-year teacher or as a teacher starting a new special ed position, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Between all of the unknowns and all of the things you want to prep now to be a little more prepared once school starts, you may not be sure where to start. These first year teacher tips will help!
Thankfully, the VIP teachers from Mrs. D’s VIP Facebook Group put together their best advice for new teachers or teachers who are starting a new position or in a new school.
If you are more of a paper-pencil-cross-it-off-the-list type of person, you can find these tips and suggestions in list format for free here.
First Year Teacher Tips and Tricks: Advice for a New School Year or New School
It Takes a Village to Teach Our Students
You are not a one-person show.
Introduce yourself to secretaries, librarians, custodians, IT dept lead, nurses, ancillaries, special ed, and cafeteria staff. A note, an email, goes a long way to getting on their amicable side. They often get overlooked, and they are there for the kiddos as much as we are. They will go above and beyond for you.
Get to know the adults (paras, interpreters, behavior managers, related service people) in the room. You’ll be a team and family to each other in the trenches of the school year. They can be your best ally. Each one helps in a different way, and by building relationships with them, things flow better and can make your life easier. Treat them with respect; they most likely have years of experience and have value in the classroom.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help. Ever.
You’re not going to know everything. Admin understands. If you think the question you are asking is silly or too easy, ask it anyway! The more questions you ask, the better you will feel and the more confident you will become in the everyday things because you know all of the details.
Build Relationships with Parents
Get to know your parents and have a face-to-face relationship with each one. For tips on how to keep parents in the know and how to effectively communicate with parents daily, click here. If you’re looking for a daily communication notebook, try the one I use: click here.
Start Each Day with a Clean Slate
Remember that each day is a fresh start. The bad days can be bad, but the good days far outweigh the bad and make you remember why you got into this field.
Have High Standards
Keep your standards high even if other teachers don’t.
Follow teachers on Instagram by hashtags… not just SPED teachers, but anyone you find inspiring.
Read IEPs Completely
Definitely take the time time to read your students’ IEPs. Do this before you even begin putting your room together.
- Extra tip: Print extra copies of your student’s IEPs and RRs and go at them with a highlighter. Do the same thing whenever you get new students too. One teacher says, “I found out one of my kids had a nut allergy by reading his RR. The teacher hasn’t put it anywhere in his IEP.” – Linnet M.
- Insider tip: “I don’t care what they say; your students come first. Know the laws. Wrightslaw.com is a good resource. The possibility of due process is an uncanny motivator for some people.” – Donna E.
A Pretty Classroom is Not Required
It’s okay to not have a Pinterest-perfect classroom! #allaboard #hotmessexpress
Although it’s visually appealing, it’s not the reality of a first-year teacher… and it doesn’t make you a better teacher. Your priorities should be to focus on functionality for students, accessibility for materials, and how the classroom setup supports your classroom routines and procedures. Decorations come with time, but don’t stress over having it look “perfect”.
- Insider tip: “Know that there is no such thing as a perfect classroom. Things will go wrong, lessons will be off track, and stuff will fall off the walls… and that’s okay!” – Jennifer B.
Don’t Let Paperwork Wear You Down
Don’t feel overwhelmed by all of the paperwork. Always stay ahead of it by completing it and filing it.
- Insider tip: “Look at things in small pieces to avoid becoming overwhelmed. For instance, I’ve gone through my entire caseload for next year and noted all my annual dates, triennial dates, and reminders for transition conferences. Then I created a spreadsheet with a tab for each month. I have everything laid out in each tab- which consents to get signed, when to do observations, reminders to schedule meetings for the following month, etc.” – Ashley C-K.
Read here to find more tips on organizing your IEP’s for the year.
Don’t Stress Over Curriculum
Don’t feel overwhelmed by the curriculum, either. It is better to really know and use one curriculum well than to use four different curriculums not well at all. Focus on one at a time. You’ll get there, don’t worry!
Find Your Tribe
Find your tribe, a handful of coworkers you can laugh with and let off steam and don’t take things so seriously for a minute… however, stay away from the gossip areas like the teachers’ lounge and copy rooms. These rooms have ears. You’ll learn where the “safe” rooms are.
- Extra tip: Find a mentor teacher, someone who has been teaching for over 10 years and makes it look easy. Go observe her/his class during your conference period from time to time and take mental notes. Ask questions!
Manage Your Paras From Day One
Set rules/expectations for your paras. A positive approach to have is that you all are now a team. Discuss things together and listen to opinions, but at the end of the day, your paras need to respect your final decisions, even if they do not agree.
Plan Your Classroom Layout
My biggest piece of advice is to make sure that every area of your classroom is easily accessible for all students, especially if you have wheelchairs in your room.
- Insider tip: “I have a darling who “finds” things in my room and “keeps” them, so think where you will keep resources locked up.” – Donna E.
Take a deep breath and remember no one is perfect. Do your best, and the rest will fall into place.
- Insider tip: The best advice I ever received was this: “Get them off the bus, make sure they eat lunch, and make sure they get home on the right bus at the end of the day. That’s a successful day!” And some days, that will be how it goes… and it’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day.
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Create a Basic Schedule
Lay out your basic classroom schedule, or at least the parts of the schedule you want to incorporate. Will you have sensory time? Computer time? You can easily have your visual schedule prepped now, without times on them, so that all you need to do is put them on the front board for day 1.
- Extra tip: Try to establish a low-maintenance schedule for students and staff to start the year and then as they get good with that one, tighten it up for more instruction, but make sure everyone has a schedule!
- Insider tip: “Your classroom schedule is important, but don’t get super attached to it. Chances are it will have to change based on student needs and therapy schedules.” – Casie M.
Make Your Morning Routine Count
It may seem too early, but it’s never too early to plan the first hour of your day… your morning routine. Have all of your calendar parts prepped and ready to put up, and ready to use on day 1. [ Great news! I’ve planned your morning routine for you. Learn more here. ]
Color Code Your Classroom
- Extra tip: Figure out how paperwork is handled at your school and come up with a system that works for you so you aren’t drowning halfway through the first semester in IEP drafts, signature pages, progress reports, BIPS, goal sheets, etc.
Start Prepping NOW
Adapted Work Binders, File Folder Games, Sorting Mats, Adapted Books, and Task Bins, oh my! Prep a range of levels if you don’t know the levels of your kids yet, and prep very easy and simple tasks that almost any student could do so that you have some independent work for the students.
Even if it is matching errorless pieces or lots of put-in tasks, you won’t regret having given yourself those 2 minutes of independent work for your students.
- Insider tip: “All adapted materials are great but require a great deal of prep time. I wouldn’t be able to run my classroom without these materials, but I don’t always have time to prep them during the school year.” – Elizabeth N.
Everyone Signs In
Have a sign-in book for all related services to use when they enter and leave the room. You can grab a free one here. It serves as documentation as to who, when, and how often service providers come. It’s great when there are ever any questions about it.
Decide on a Classroom Theme…Maybe
Keep in mind that you are a special education teacher, and the kids might eat the decorations. 🙂
Make your welcome letter and/or your welcome packet and parent handbook. Give parents a classroom handbook they will actually use, like this Dual Flipbook. It keeps all important information in one convenient place; attach a magnet to the back so parents can keep it on their fridge at home.
You are not there to be your students’ buddy; you are there to be their teacher. Act professionally always.
Figure Out Procedures
Figure out your behavior plan/classroom procedures, model, and reinforce. Give them some power; this can be done with choices, but let them have some power.
- Insider tip: “Learn that what you say and how you say it makes a huge difference. Stay positive for your kiddos. And that doing what you say you are going to do will teach you more than anything.” – DeeDee M.
Focus on the Learning
It’s so easy to get distracted by the way things appear (we’re looking at you, Glow Rooms that general ed teachers do for test prep!) that you forget about the learning that needs to take place. Forget about the glitter and glow and focus on the learning instead. Keep things simple.
Use Your Planning Time Wisely
When you have planning time, cherish it and use it to plan and write your IEPs. Don’t waste it in the breakroom or on filing things. This was one of the most important first year teacher tips that I ever got!
Have a Sense of Humor and Be Authentic
There will rarely be a day go by when you don’t find something funny that happens. Laugh. Show your students that you’re human by being authentic and genuine. When they know you care, they care enough to get to know you and buy into what you want them to do. If you’re fake, they will see right through you.
Keep Extra Sets
That’s extra sets of clothes, rain boots, jackets, gloves, and hats to be exact. Between rainy dismissals to sick kids, you just never know what’s going to happen to your clothes from day to day.
You may quickly come to find out who the staff gossips are. Don’t get caught up in the gossip – don’t listen to it, and don’t spread it.
First Year Teacher Tips and Tricks: Advice on Things to Buy Now
Start at this blog post: 25 Must Haves for Any Special Education Teacher.
A good planner or calendar, like an Erin Condren Life Planner. Print your district or school calendar and put the dates into your planner. You can also include reminders about when to start things for ARDs, PLCs, committees, etc.
- Insider tip: “If you can get your hands on the curriculum pacing guide (if provided), plan out your year, testing weeks, holidays, events like Meet the Teachers, and sketch out activities and themed lessons.” – Donna E.
Buy two pairs of scissors. One for normal things and one for cutting Velcro. I recommend spring-loaded scissors for regular cutting and non-stick scissors for hook and loop use. Label your Velcro-only scissors because it will destroy your good scissors. This way, you’ll always have a good pair around.
Buy a binder to house all of your important documents, like campus schedules, PD, evaluations, cafeteria layout, etc. I recommend starting with a 1.5″ binder.
First Year Teacher Tips and Tricks: Advice to Keep You Healthy
“No” Is Not a Curse Word
Don’t be afraid to say no. You can’t say “yes” to everything… and you’ll more than likely burn out faster if you never say no.
Snacks, Snacks, and More Snacks
Get yourself a snack drawer. Seriously. If you’re having “one of those days” and you want to have chocolate and soda for lunch, do it. Whatever it takes to help you make it through that day, do it. Then go home and relax. Tomorrow is a new day.
Contract Time Only
Allow yourself to be okay with being there at contract time and leaving at contract time.
- Insider tip: “Advice from my student teaching teachers… told me to allow yourself at least one day of not bringing any work home and just do things for you. That’s the best advice I was given and remember every day.” – Nicole D.
Self Care Isn’t Selfish
Learn more about self-care by reading this blog post: 6 Self Care Tips for Teachers
Give Yourself “Me Time”
Don’t forget that while being a teacher is part of you (an important part! ), it is not all of you. If you allow it to be all of you-you will burn out. Learn when to finish things tomorrow. Always take time to be a parent, sibling, spouse, and friend. Your work will ALWAYS be there; something will always need to be done – so make sure to take the time to fill all your roles, not just the role of teacher.
It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
It will be tough, but it will get better. You will have good days and bad days, and maybe that and everything in between in one day, but it will be okay. If you need to walk away for a second, do it. If you need to tap out and have a para take your place while you take a breather, do it. It’s also okay to take time for YOU! You are just as important as your students, don’t forget that!
Use Your Sick and Personal Days
They’re there for a reason. Use them, and don’t feel guilty about it!
Pick Your Battles
Some things are not worth fighting over. Pick your battles and take a stand only when you need to otherwise, your whole year will be spent fighting the education system.
Have a Thick Skin
Teaching is hard. Dealing with parents is hard. Sometimes co-workers make things harder. Let things roll off your back and develop a thick skin because there will be times when you need it.
If getting 8 hours of sleep means going to bed at 8 pm every evening, do it. Sleep is vital to your mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
Don’t Let Kids Hijack Your Emotions
Students are really good at pushing buttons when they know your weaknesses. Don’t let them hijack your emotions.
Don’t Share Your Pencil or Pen
Use your own pencil or pen to mark papers or jot down notes. Sharing with your students means that you’re sharing in on their germs!
Wear Your Hair Up
Lice are a reality in schools, and they don’t care if you’re a student or a teacher. Wear your hair up and out of the way to help minimize sharing them with your students.
Teaching is a part of you, but it does not define you!
What other tips or tricks of advice would you add to this list?