Special education teachers are expected to do quite a lot: Assess students’ skills to determine their needs and then develop teaching plans; organize and assign activities that are specific to each student’s abilities; teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one; and write individualized education plans in parent-friendly language.
In addition, they must know and apply the dozens of acronyms used in their field: ADA (American with Disabilities Act), DOR (Department of Rehabilitation), LEA (local education agency), PDD (pervasive developmental disorder), and LRE (least restrictive environment), to name just a few.
As I work with special education teachers, I remain awestruck by their energy, empathy, and excitement. Here’s what I’ve learned from them that has made me a better teacher.
1. Accept every student as they are. Students come to us with packages and baggage. Open and unpack slowly and gently, with kindness, respect, and understanding. Building a relationship with a student takes time and patience—allow it to happen organically. If you push it, shove it, or force it, you’ll have to start all over and it may or may not bloom.
2. Active listening is a gift. Every day, every student will have a problem—or something they perceive to be a problem. Stop, make eye contact, and listen. Don’t offer a solution until invited to do so. Don’t minimize their problem, experience, or situation. Don’t take their problem to the principal or other administrator until you’ve given the student time to think it through. Sometimes all they want is to be heard.
3. Scaffolding a lesson is just good teaching. Be prepared to break down a lesson and create pieces of learning. When each piece is explained, modeled, practiced, and applied, the parts fit together solidly to form a whole of understanding. Too much lecturing, too thick a packet, or too many directions can cause anxiety and disquiet. One small step at a time usually works best.
4. Be specific when sharing information with parents. When talking with parents, offer specific positives and exact concerns about their child’s abilities. Be careful of generalizations like always, never, usually, and sometimes. Give explicit examples and partner with parents to create opportunities for growth. Parents want to support teachers—show them how.
5. Eliminate jargon when talking with parents. Remember all those acronyms? If they must be used, use them sparingly and define each one. Acronyms can aid teachers in communicating with each other, but they build a divide with parents because using them is exclusionary—they’re a special language for educators. Building a partnership with parents means having a common vocabulary that inspires, not tires.
6. Students want to feel loved. Our students want to believe they’re the only ones in our class, on our caseload, or in our hearts. A small token of appreciation—a handwritten note, a quiet teacher-student lunch, or our cell phone number—tells that student we care about them and their academics. The importance of building relationships cannot be overstressed—students need us to show them that love is always possible.
7. Share what we’ve learned with others. Sharing resources and strategies with other teachers advances our students’ learning. Special education teachers are experts in the philosophy of differentiation. They don’t simply do differentiation—they employ it as a mindset needed to teach well. Demonstrating for one student how to apply a strategy will benefit all students.
8. Patience is a gift, a virtue, and a necessity. All of our students require patience, but some need a little more than others. Giving extra time for homework or a differentiated assessment could alleviate some of that challenge. Always remember that parents send to us their most precious possessions, hoping we’ll be humble, supportive, and empathetic.
9. Ask for help. Do not assume that you can teach, nurture, feed, clothe, and shelter every student on your caseload or in your class. Before you jeopardize your physical, emotional, and mental health, it’s important to ask for support. Your colleagues, school social worker, school psychologist, and other support staff are ready to help you help your students.
10. Laugh. There are some days when laughter might be the last thing you’re thinking of, but it may just be what you need. Our students come to us from different places—cognitively and logistically—yet a hearty chuckle or shared case of the giggles may help all of us take a step back and start again.