Do you remember your first day teaching? I have to say it – I was adorable. I went shopping and got what I thought was the quintessential teacher outfit. Visualize lots of gingham and bright colors. My hair was perfect and my enthusiasm could not be contained. Fast forward nine hours, and my hair was in a side ponytail (not intentional), there was a hole in my pants on the left knee (to this day a mystery), and one of the cute I love teaching appliques fell off my shirt. There was a serious disconnect from what I anticipated happening to what actually happened. I never worked so hard in my life than that first year teaching, mostly because I was working harder not smarter. Here are some tips for you to support those new teachers in their first three years of teaching.
1. Create a welcoming environment.
Special education teachers are often the only teacher in their area, which can feel very isolating. Assign the new teacher a “homeroom” grade level team to create connections. Give a welcome basket that includes the essentials for the job (most items can be found in your workroom) and be sure to add in The Survival Guide for New Special Education Teachers. This helpful book includes, “the needs and priorities of 21st-century special educators, offers practical guidance on such topics as roles and responsibilities, school environment and culture, classroom organization and management, collaboration with other professionals, and individual professional development” (Martin and Hauth, 2014). Make sure the new teacher has a mentor on-site that is skilled in their work and check-in often.
2. Set clear expectations.
Borrow a page from Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead book where she states, “clear is kind”. Meet with your new teacher and discuss your expectations for professionalism and job responsibilities. Do not rely on Human Resources or the new teacher orientation program to address all expectations, especially those specific to your building/department. Brown says, “not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind” (Brown, 2018).
Include important expectations such as: work hours, professional conduct, meeting attendance, collaboration, lesson planning, and how to ask for additional support. Some of these topics will be included in your human resources onboarding process but there are always nuances specific to your school. Take the time upfront to provide clear expectations to pave the way to a successful school year.
3. Develop an organizational structure.
The first major challenge a new special education teacher will face is managing a caseload of 25+ students with varying service times, IEP meetings, and grade-level team meetings. Work with your new teacher to develop a calendaring system that will work with the competing demands unique to special education. I strongly recommend a shared calendaring system with notifications that is available for the team. This allows you to check-in and intervene before important timelines are missed.
Don’t assume scheduling was taught in their undergrad program. Special education teachers have to provide specially designed instruction as outlined in the IEP and meet those service times. The task of scheduling can be overwhelming and seem impossible to meet those times during the limited hours of the school day. Work alongside your new teacher in creating a schedule that meets IEP minutes while keeping in mind the expectations of the school’s master schedule. Ensure or provide a tracking tool of IEP service minutes should times come into question. Planning and organization are key components to being a successful special education teacher.
4. Foster continuous learning and job-embedded coaching.
As educators we know learning doesn’t stop when you finish school. Being a first year teacher comes with many challenges and competing demands. As the leader it is imperative to find meaningful professional learning opportunities for your new teacher and whenever possible embed those opportunities within the school day. Here are some ideas to consider continuous learning for new teachers.
1. Professional Learning Networks (PLNs)
“A professional learning network is a vibrant, ever-changing group of connections to which teachers go to both share and learn. These groups reflect our values, passions, and areas of expertise” (Crowley, 2014). PLNs are a great way to continue learning that allows flexibility based on the new teacher’s schedule and interests.
Check out 4 Fantastic and Free Professional Learning Networks for Teachers for some great ideas. “PLNs offer a forum for crowdsourcing advice and a source for unlimited peer-to-peer support. Though teachers initially will need to invest time to find quality content and users to follow, they will quickly have a wealth of fantastic PD resources at their fingertips anytime, anywhere” (The Journal, 2015). The peer-to-peer support is invaluable to any teacher, but especially first year teachers that may feel alone in their struggles. If your new teacher decides to join a PLN make sure to follow up and discuss their learning. While PLNs are a great resource it is just like any professional development that needs to be reviewed for alignment to goals and quality.
2. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
UDL is based on the concept of removing barriers and creating access points within three guidelines: multiple means of representation, engagement, and action and expression. The key to quality instruction is providing universal supports. These universal supports should extend into the special education setting and thoughtfully planned in a lesson. CAST is an organization dedicated to providing information, training, and resources on UDL. “Through our mission to make the methods, materials, and assessments of learning flexible and engaging, CAST provides practitioners with instructional design and teaching strategies to make curricula more effective. Educators can benefit from a variety of online courses, onsite institutes, and other opportunities to expand and enrich their practice. Administrators can explore UDL and discover implementation strategies that support sustainable change (CAST, 2021). The online course and resources are high quality and offer a variety of professional development options. Encourage your new teacher to try a new skill each week to build their toolkit.
3. Explore High Leverage Practices (HLPs)
High Leverage Practices were developed, “in partnership with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR), the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has developed and published a set of high-leverage practices (HLPs) for special educators and teacher candidates. The HLPs are organized around four aspects of practice: Collaboration, Assessment, Social/emotional/behavioral, and Instruction. From these four aspects of practice, there are 22 practices intended to address the most critical practices that every K–12 special education teacher should master and be able to demonstrate” (CEC, 2017). So many times new special education teachers struggle with understanding their role as a teacher and how to provide specially designed instruction. The HLPs give guidance to special education teachers on the four aspects in an easy to use format. This resource is truly a one-stop shop for teachers and should be bookmarked on everyones’ computers.
4. Provide job embedded coaching
This is another area not to assume the district office will be taking care of it. Coaching is an essential responsibility for principals. In order to be an instructional leader, principals must engage in short cycle observation and feedback, which includes coaching. “Coaching is an essential component of an effective professional development program. Coaching can build will, skill, knowledge, and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator” (E. Aguliar, 2013). Even if your new teacher has a district-level coach, you as the site-leader still need to provide frequent coaching.
Similar to setting clear expectations, outline exactly when you will be coaching and what areas of instruction you will be focusing on. During feedback be sure to provide timely and meaningful feedback rooted in your teacher evaluation rubric. Coaching is the greatest investment you can make in order to increase teacher efficacy and increase student outcomes.
5. Suggest networking opportunities
As stated above the job can be isolating and meeting other professionals within the field increases job satisfaction and productivity. Encourage your new teacher to join professional organizations. I highly recommend the Council of Exceptional Children. This amazing organization hosts many events for new teachers including coffee chats, online trainings, and community forums. There is a strong focus on supporting new teachers and resources for administrators as well.
Being a new teacher is hard and many times supporting a new teacher is just as difficult. Use the tips listed above to start and remember that the key to any relationship is communication. Frequent communication and check-ins with your new teacher will facilitate a successful school year.
E. Aguilar. How coaching can impact teachers, principals, and students. (2013). https://www.edutopia.org/blog/coaching-impact-teachers-principals-students-elena-aguilar
B. Brown. Clear is kind. Unclear in unkind. (2018). https://brenebrown.com/blog/2018/10/15/clear-is-kind-unclear-is-unkind/#close-popup
CAST. Institute and Online Courses. (2021). https://www.cast.org/products-services/institutes-online-courses
C.Creighton Martin and C. Hauth. The Survival Guide for New Special Education Teachers. (2014). https://exceptionalchildren.org/store/books/survival-guide-new-special-education-teachers
Council for Exceptional Children. About the HLPs. (2017). https://highleveragepractices.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/Preface.Intro1_.pdf
B. Crowley. 3 Steps for building a professional learning network. (2014). https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-3-steps-for-building-a-professional-learning-network/2014/12#:~:text=A%20professional%20learning%20network%20is,passions%2C%20and%20areas%20of%20expertise.&text=It%20is%20a%20blend%20of,buddies%2C%20mentors%2C%20and%20rockstars.
The Journal: Transforming Education through Technology. Four fantastic and free professional learning networks for teachers. (2015). https://thejournal.com/Articles/2015/10/06/4-Fantastic-and-Free-Professional-Learning-Networks-for-Teachers.aspx?Page=1