4 Survival Strategies for Special Education Teachers
It’s estimated that up to almost 50 percent of a special education teacher’s time is spent completing paperwork.
Yet, as a teacher, you want to spend your school days teaching. You want to work hard in ensuring that every student — no matter their ability — gets a fair shot at success. In short, you chose to become a special education teacher because you care. Because it’s a hard job and somebody has to do it; why shouldn’t that somebody be as qualified and invested as you?
However, even with all of your training and resilience, the job of special education teacher can be taxing. You tackle some of the most challenging student cases, and yet, still spend much of your energy managing unwieldy administrative tasks and seemingly endless compliance requirements.
There’s a reason the attrition rate for special education teachers is so high.
Happily, there are some simple ways you can keep yourself energized, committed and focused as you support students with disabilities in both general and special education classrooms.
Keep reading — relief is in sight!
1. Schedule, Schedule, then Schedule Some More
Keeping yourself out of the weeds is no small task — it starts with a strong sense of daily purpose, born from a well-maintained schedule.
However, scheduling doesn’t only mean mapping out classroom time. It means proactively meeting with general education teachers and setting aside time to speak with therapists, speech pathologists and parents.
Perhaps the most important aspect of special education scheduling is to try and maintain flexibility. Small scheduling changes will happen; it’s unavoidable. Yet, if you schedule well and maintain a flexible attitude, you will overcome many of the obstacles to student success.
Which leads us to….
2. Don’t Fight Change — Embrace It
Part of the struggle of managing special education is seemingly ever-changing state and federal compliance regulations. Add to that a populace with unique needs that can extend well beyond the average learner or the mandated curriculum, and it’s plain to see that, within the sphere of special education, consistent change is simply a part of life for educators.
The constant change can feel a lot like upheaval, unless you learn to embrace it. Of course, embracing change is easier said than done. Yet, when your attitude is one of flexibility and of setting a schedule while at the same time planning ahead for the unexpected, suddenly change seems less like something to fear and more like an old friend just dropping in to say hello.
Plus, working in a dynamic landscape like special education means more opportunities to learn exciting new student-support strategies.
As you’re undoubtedly well aware, paperwork is a big part of ensuring children with disabilities have access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). There’s no getting around all the forms and state-specific regulations. It’s just part of the job.
As such, you need to be prepared at all times for changes in a particular student’s situation. You can’t alter a student’s IEP, after all, without reliable and precise data to back up your intent.
So, start a file (or 10) for your students. Keep close tabs on all your learners, and make sure to log any necessary information. Ask general education teachers to collect data when the students are in their classroom. Keep up-to-date on changing compliance procedures and don’t let paperwork keep you from doing what you’re passionate about — teaching.
This tip may seem unnecessary, considering the highly collaborative nature of successful teacher teams, yet, sometimes the easiest and simplest way to lighten a burden is also the hardest to see and accept: Ask for help!
As a special education teacher, you may feel removed, in a way, from your fellow teachers. While other educators in your school work with full classrooms and straightforward schedules, you’re sifting through piles of paperwork and determining individual courses for specific students. Proactively communicating with general education teachers and related service providers, whether in person or over secure digital channels, can go a long way toward bridging the divide that often seems to sprout up between special educators and the rest of a successful school system.
In Conclusion: Keep Your Eye on the Prize and Lean into Change
Embracing change and the complexity of your work and finding ways to simplify special education processes without decreasing the quality of student support are the surest ways to succeed as a special educator.
Use the above four best practices as jumping off points to dig in and make life better for you and the educators you work with on a daily basis. Remember, 68% of teachers turn to other teachers for support, over educational leadership or their larger networks, so lean on each other whenever you can!
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Angela Denning has worked in the field of special education for 30 years at both the state and district levels. She was State Director of Special Education in Arizona and Colorado. Angela has a bachelor's degree in special education and a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Arizona State University. She is currently a part of the Special Education and Intervention team at Frontline Education, as a Client Success Manager. Angela resides in Denver, Colorado where she enjoys walking her dog Maggie May and cheering for the Denver Broncos.