The discovery of a brand spankin’ new teacher starting new blog is kind of exciting to me. I might have said it before, but I need to say it here, is that I have kind of a burn for new teachers. Relatively fresh, idealistic and energetic, these folks represent the future of our profession.
Kacie is one of a rare group who comes to special education from a traditional teacher preparation program. I have no idea of the quality of Illinois State’s program but it sounds rigorous enough by her own account. I’m not surprised that she was scooped up as soon as she graduated from college. A far cry from what I experienced back in the day as a December graduate in Agriculture Education. I languished in the gulag of substitute teaching for the remainder of the school term. Today, the majority of positions my school system fills in special education is filled by people undergoing alternative certification or are still in the process. I have met exactly one new hire in our school system who has completed a traditional teacher prep program for special education. And she is mighty good.
So the first thing I’d say to Kacie is that she is one of a pretty elite group of folks who come on the job who has some idea of what she’s supposed to be doing. I’ve met many, many who walk into the classroom for the first time as a new hire who have not the faintest idea of what is going on. Many who have absolutely no prior teaching experience. The flow of teachers often runs from special education into regular education and rarely in reverse. We often get social studies and P.E. teachers who park themselves in a special ed. class until there’s an opening in their field.
As a teacher starting in the middle of the year, Kacie has to hit the ground running. This is daunting for any teacher, but with special ed. there are other things going on, like annual reviews. These really get cooking in the spring and are a lot of work even for experienced teachers. There may also be some of the high stakes testing going on, as well as other assessments that have to happen right before the IEP.
At the beginning of the school year, new teachers have a chance to get some orientation as to who they are working with, who they are working for and where it is they are working. She has none of this. However, it does sound like she has some friends around who can provide valuable support.
In one way, starting in the middle is good. She only has 90 days of school left before summer. By the time she starts back in the fall, she will have a much better idea of what is expected and what is likely to happen. The end of school seems to always be rougher than the beginning as far as student behavior. If she makes it through this and she’ll be in good stead the next year.
Advice? Remember that the first year is a shakedown year for all teachers. The good news is that kids generally like younger teachers. The bad news is that they don’t always respect them. They have to exercise twice the diligence to keep the classroom running smoothly.
Let’s talk about the teaching assistant or paraeducator for a minute. Odds are, this person is older and might have been around the system longer. This makes her a good resource and a valuable asset. However, don’t make the mistake of being too collegial with her. Whose butt is on the line? Who is the administration going to go after if something goes wrong? Who do the parents want to talk to or complain to? Not the assistant. The teacher is responsible for everything that goes on in that room. Younger or not, the teacher must take the lead and take charge. And this often requires taking a directive approach. Meaning giving explicit instructions and making plans for her. Evaluate and supervise as much as can be spared. Give the sort of good feedback that was given during student teaching. Most paras like well-established routines and expectations. They benefit from a similar structure and routine as the students. Most teachers are given little or no instruction on how to supervise paras. With a little investment, it is easy to cultivate a good one. A good assistant can be invaluable. But a bad one will be as much of a hindrance as a help.
Another missing aspect of the teacher prep curriculum is dealing with parents. I remember my own supervising teacher telling me, “You think the kids are bad? Wait until you meet the parents!” He was right. But after becoming a parent I gained a whole new insight into the special education system. It’s helpful to understand that no matter how hard it is to teach a room full of kids, being the parent of one 24/7 is harder. They carry the full weight of that child’s future on them. Many went from dealing with the medical system to early intervention and finally the school. There a host of emotional issues bound up in their children. If the children are young like Kacie’s, the parents (mostly mothers) may be experiencing marital discord, divorce, financial stress, social isolation, depression, exhaustion and anger. Teachers think the educational red tape is tough to deal with, because it is. But it is nothing compared to medical, insurance, Medicaid and social security red tape. Being confrontational towards a parent is about the worst mistake a teacher can make. A properly motivated parent with nothing but time on her hands can make life hell on earth. Which is why my job is pretty secure. Since I have 2 children with IEPs, the last thing the school wants is for me to get motivated with time on my hands. So teachers need to go out of their way to be cordial with these important people. Teachers come and go, but the parents are stuck for good.
All good teachers make mistakes, and we are often our own toughest critics. Many, many young teachers lose sleep over what they should or should not have done in a given situation. While I think the self reflection can be beneficial, the fear and anxiety can result in burnout. The average lifespan for a special education teacher is about 3 years. So this becomes a race for endurance as much as for excellence. Reflective teachers can beat burnout by continuing to grow. For me this has involved going back to school. It also means helping and mentoring other teachers and paras along the way. Finally, I am always looking outward as well as inward. While most teachers become frustrated with change, change is inevitable. It’s going to happen. Kacie is learning this the hard way as she gets rid of her most challenging student only to have 2 new ones put into her classroom. Her competence is going to be continually challenged and she is going to have to grow. But if she can hang tough, confidence will come with the increased experience.
My wife, Jane, often goes to parent support meetings and the parents spend a lot of time talking about the teachers their children have. They generally fall into two distinct camps: Those that are very dissatisfied and those that are pretty happy. My goal is to have parents that are very happy. Besides seeing a student make a big breakthrough, turning a parent from unhappy to happy is probably one of my biggest and best confidence boosters.