Welcome back to part two of my post series about making it through the first year of teaching public school and enjoying the process. If you haven’t read the first part, you can read it here. In today’s post, I will talk about lesson planning and parent involvement, and address some issues specific to special education. If you’re a new teacher yourself, I hope you find some of the things I share in this post useful. And as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section or via message! 

6) Find a Lesson Plan Template That Works…for YOU!  

During my first year of teaching, I taught five different subjects at sixth-grade level. This experience, which was challenging to the point of exhaustion during the first semester, has taught me that I need to find a way of streamlining planning if I want to keep my lessons engaging, my expectations high, and my own sanity intact. After mainly just trying not to drown in work for the first two months or so, I began playing around with a few different lesson plan templates. I ended up using a modified version of the Understanding by Design (UbD) template. UbD is a well-known version of backward lesson planning, i.e. lesson planning that takes the learning objective as its starting point. This is a draft of one of my social studies lesson plans from last school year. If you have questions about any of the details and/or the color coding, feel free to send me a message; I’m happy to provide more details. For now, just one additional remark: As you can see, guided practice usually takes the form of small-group or partner work in my classroom. My school focuses on implementing Kagan structures and integrating social-emotional learning into all aspects of the school day. Another useful aspect of this kind of lesson plan template is that it will allow you to take it as a starting point and modify it to include different needs and/or new insights if or when you teach the same content again. It will thus not only make your work easier in the moment but, ideally, long-term. However, you may find another template that works better for you. But looking for templates and experimenting with them early on until I found something that worked for me has definitely helped me reduce the stress of lesson planning. 

7) Interactive Notebooks 

I began the school year using binders, because coming from teaching college, this was the only way I knew how to organize materials. However, I learned quickly that helping students organize their binders, replacing lost work sheets, and fixing ripped pages took a chunk of my instructional time almost every single day, in every single subject. And while there is something to be said for using binder organizing as a strategy to strengthen executive functioning skills, which many of the students in my special education classroom struggle with, there are many other effective strategies that can be integrated into instruction and daily routines. Roughly around the same time that the despair about the notebook situation set in, I learned about interactive notebooks. Many of you may have heard of this method of organizing students’ materials before. For those of you who haven’t, interactive notebooks are a way for students to keep track and take ownership of their learning by writing and gluing all their in a notebook, which is set up based on a particular system. When I first started using interactive notebooks, I found this resource particularly helpful. This blog explains in a few simple words what the purpose of interactive notebooks is and how to use them. The linked starter package on Teacher Pay Teachers has also worked well for me, and I plan on using it again this school year. Interactive notebooks do not only prevent students from losing their materials, but most students also get pretty excited about maintaining their notebooks and thus gradually take ownership of this part of their learning. It does take some time to find and modify or create materials pertaining to each lesson and then for students to cut and glue the materials. However, this is time well spent. Not only did my students spend less time on setting up their notebooks than the did on trying to organize their binders, the activity is also more rewarding, because it involves creating something, rather than just exercising damage control. In addition, there are sheer endless possibilities for kinesthetically and/or visually engaging activities in an interactive notebook. And while varying the mode of instruction supports learning at any level, it is vital for students with learning disabilities. Finally, interactive notebooks are a great way of tracking student progress. All materials will be in one place, which is useful for general education teachers, who may have a large number of students whose progress they need to track, and special education teachers, who will need to track each student’s progress and provide specific evidence during IEP meetings. 

There will be more posts about the use of interactive notebooks in the future. As I will teach mainly within my area of expertise, history, next school year, I’ve begun binge watching/reading all about using interactive notebooks in that subject. For now, here’s a great YouTube tutorial for those considering using interactive notebooks in their history classrooms.

8) Building Relationships with Parents

Having a good relationship with our students’ parents or guardians can go a long way when it comes to creating a positive learning environment and making sure our students’ needs are met. Student learning does not end at the classroom door, and especially in special education, we need to work closely with parents. When it comes to taking parent input and concerns seriously, actions speak louder than words. Especially in the beginning of the school year, I went out of my way to reach out to my students’ parents. During the first week, I sent home a personalized parent letter and a short survey about their child in the parents’ preferred language of communication. The last part is key. Make sure language access is not just an afterthought. Generally, schools have information about parents’ or guardians’ preferred languages on file. Use it! If you speak the preferred languages of the parents or guardians of the students in your classroom, that’s great! However, if not, make sure to take this aspect of your work seriously. Find someone who can translate written communication skillfully, in a way that shows you appreciate your students’ home language and culture. And make sure to give parents or guardians you do not share a language with as many updates as you provide for other parents. Sometimes going the extra mile may seem exhausting and seem like a lot of work on top of all the things already on your plate. But as an interpreter whose professional practice is grounded in the principles of language justice, I cannot stress this aspect enough: Language is crucial when we talk about parent involvement and education access and equity. I will have a separate post about issues related to language in the future, including strategies to access language support. For now, the last thing I want to share in this post is to resist the urge to only reach out to parents when their kids are in trouble or struggling. Call with good news about progress and achievements! Call parents or guardians to invite them to events such as Back-to-School Night or Open House! I know that the latter may not be feasible for general education teachers with more than 100 students. But even a thoughtfully crafted email or Remind message can go a long way.

9) HELP! — Working on IEPs

When I first started working as a special education teacher, it had only been a few months since I had first learned what an IEP (Individualized Education Program, for students with particular instructional needs) is. I had had one two-day workshop on the significance of IEPs and how to write them and no training in using the particular online system my district uses or in how to administer standardized education testing. However, I was expected to hit the ground running and do all of these things as part of my day-to-day work as a special education teacher. And the truth is, I could not have done it without the support from veteran teachers in my department. From setting up my account for the standardized education testing system, to requesting access to the IEP online management system, to providing step-by-step guidance when I was writing my first four-year IEP, to assisting me during my first IEP meetings: There was a sheer endless amount of professional skills I learned through what we would call “guided practice.” Considering that I had received very little  previous theoretical instruction in any of these areas, this was certainly not an ideal situation. However, with the shortage of special education teachers and many districts scrambling to fill positions, this is a rather common experience for new teachers. The most important piece of advice I have received and want to share here is to never be afraid to ask for help. As I mentioned at the beginning of my first post, everyone in the education world is well aware of the teacher shortage and the lack of preparation many of us have received. Do not hesitate to ask for help, as much and as often as you need to. You may not always get the support you need immediately, but at the very least you will usually be referred to someone who is able to help you. Remember that IEPs are legal documents, which is why it is even more important to seek out support if you are not entirely sure what you are required to do. If your credentialing program did not offer a class in special education law before you started teaching, make sure to familiarize yourself with the law and seek out a class you can attend as soon as possible. The same applies to standardized educational testing: Find out if your district offers trainings in administering standardized tests, such as the Woodcock-Johnson or the KTEA, and attend them. If you cannot attend a training, find a veteran teacher and ask them to guide you through the process the first time you administer the test and write the report. Remember that it is always better to have an IEP meeting rescheduled than attending it underprepared. I had a very hard time requesting meetings to be rescheduled during my first year, because I always felt like doing so meant I wasn’t doing my job. However, I have learned that setting boundaries and ensuring work quality are more important. And these things will take longer for new teachers than they do for experienced ones.