12 tips for first year special education teachers

Starting your first year as a special education teacher is so incredibly nerve-wracking.  You don't know the students, you don't know the staff, you typically don't know the building.  When I started, I was so nervous. And believe me, I had to start in a new district about 5 times!!  So after 12 years of being a self-contained special education teacher,  I finally decided to share my top 12 tips that you can use at the beginning of the school year.   addition, I made a little cheat sheet for you to grab in case you wanted to print it out and put it in your teacher binder.

1. Know the Staff

The first thing you want to do as a new teacher is to get to know all of the support staff in the building.  That means the custodial staff, your cafeteria ladies, your secretaries, and even your nurses!  You would be surprised at how often you will need their help throughout the school year. The more you get to know them and they get to know your name, the more favors they will do for you. I know at the beginning of the year, I asked the custodial staff for so much furniture and help moving it because I was always given an empty classroom (can you relate??).   I also had so many questions in the beginning about putting in for subs, finding my mailbox, or how to work that darn copier, that I always become super close to the secretaries.  Believe me, these rockstars are the people that will get you through your first year.

is it just me or does every single school have a different, confusing copy machine?

2. Read the IEPs

Start off the school year by printing off all the IEPs, putting them in a binder, and breaking out your highlighter.  After that,  make IEP-at-a-glance sheets (that you can grab for free here), and make sure to highlight all the important information and fill out that sheet.  You will want to give the IEP-at-a-glance sheet to anyone that works directly with the students: paraprofessionals, related service providers, bus drivers, and general education teachers.  This is helpful to look back at in the middle of the year as well. Make sure that your Paraprofessionals get a chance to read the IEPs as well.

3. Rules and Expectations for Para's

This is very important to do at the beginning of the school year. Many paraprofessionals have been working at the school for a number of years and have a set of expectations that they are already used to.  They need to know that you are a new teacher with new ways of doing things and that is okay. If you don't have this already set up, some paraprofessionals could run all over you and think that they know more than you or don't know what to do because the expectations aren't there.  So go ahead and take the time out to write out those expectations put them on the wall or make a poster or even give a brochure.  At the beginning of the year, sit down with them and go over them together.  I know it seems silly, but walking through the expectations step-by-step, gives them a chance to ask questions.  In addition, I have my Para handbook that is completely editable that you can print and give to them at the beginning of the year, or I have this Classroom Brochure, where you can write out all of your important information and expectations.

4. Set up the Master Schedule

You want to make sure that you set up a master schedule for the room. You need to decide how the room is going to flow.   Ask yourself some questions.

Will you . . .

  • do a center rotation?
  • have just the adults rotated?
  • have an individual schedule for everyone?

This is important to decide before you make that schedule.  You can read all about how to set up that schedule in this blog post here.

5. Set up the Physical Space

Take some graph paper and begin to sketch out the layout of your classroom and how you want to set it up.  You probably have been dreaming about this and all the things you want in your room. The main thing that I want you to remember in a special education classroom is that you need to make sure that there are clear boundaries in your classroom.  You can do many things to make that happen.  In addition,  can put colored tape on the floor, you can use different furniture arrangements to mark an area out,  you can use cardboard pieces to put up to create a boundary, or you could even use portable walls.  Make sure that it is also clearly marked with both a visual and words.  You can read this blog post on how to set up your physical space.

6. Parent Communication

Make sure that you start your year out knowing exactly how you want to communicate with all of your parents. There are so many different ways to communicate with parents, but you want to make sure that your parents AND yourself are on the same page.  Sometimes, I even chose different modes for different parents, and that is okay too! Some people use communication notebooks, some people send out weekly newsletters, some people use apps like Remind or Bloomz.  It doesn't matter what you choose, as long as you are consistent and stay connected with the parents.  School-to-home relationships are so incredibly important in the special education classroom.

7. A Teacher Binder

Get yourself a teacher planner or make a teacher binder.  I used to buy fancy planners from Erin Condren and Plum papers, but honestly, I had to add and take away so many different things every time, that it became annoying.  And then, having to buy one every single year was expensive.  So, I ended up making my own.  You want to get yourself as organized as possible, so using a teacher planner is a good way to start.   I like to print off my IEPs and add them to the back of my binder.   Also, I make sure to write all of the dates down for the year, such as important meetings and when grades are due. 

Hahahaha, I am a crazy calendar lady, so I have like 5 calendars!  I love that in my own teacher binder, I am able to add extra pages and take out random pages all through the year.  Whichever you want to go with, just make sure you start your year with some sort of teacher planner.

8. SPED Pred Station

One of the most recent things that I have added to my classroom is a SPED prep station!  I am not sure why I never did this, but it is so much easier to have everything organized in one spot when my paraprofessionals (or myself) have downtime to SPED prep all the things.  You want to make sure that you're using their time effectively and so anything that goes into a SPED Prep Station should be organized, easy to use, and labeled.  I often will write my Para's name on a sticky note to say who I want to do what.

9. Snack Bin

I know this one may sound a little silly as a MUST have but believe me, after those impossible days that you thought would never end,  you want to make some kind of a goodie basket stashed away somewhere for both you and your team to indulge in for those specific days.  When you have had a stressful day you don't want to be running around the school looking for a bar of chocolate in a vending machine,  you want to have it easy and accessible!

10. Planning Time

When you are creating your schedule, make sure that you are guarding your planning time as though your life depends on it.  This small amount of time is very precious.  You want to make sure that you use it very wisely.  Try leaving the room so that you are less distracted.  Try going into the library or break room wearing earbuds.  Even if you aren't listening to anything, people will think you are and leave you alone! If you start giving up a little bit of planning time for things like putting out fires in your classroom or setting up meetings, it can be very difficult to take it back! So stand firm and guard your time!

11. Meet with the Team

One of the very first things you should do is meet with your team at the beginning of the year.  You will not be able to run the classroom without your paraprofessionals, so it is important to go over rules and expectations, classroom procedures, and the student schedules. You also want to meet with all of your service providers (as they will be adding things to your student schedules.)   I would set aside time during the week to meet with your team(S) weekly or even bi-weekly.  A successful classroom is typically all on the same page.

12. Prep all the Materials and Visuals

Finally, start making all the visuals you're going to need for all of the students and around the classroom. You will be doing a lot of prep as a new teacher, (well I actually do a lot of prepping as a veteran teacher), but who is really keeping track.  Start by prepping all of the student's daily visual schedules.  Then, move on to the visual supports that they will need on a daily basis, such as first then charts, token systems and reward charts.  You may want to use a sensory choice board or even behavior management systems such as a behavior contingency map.  These things will all be laminated, cut, and velcroed, just make sure your team is helping you prep.  Just throw it all in the SPED prep station (see number 8).  Once you have that all prepped, you can start prepping all of your adapted content.  If you don't have a place to start, try using adapted books, simple task boxes, a Life Skills Curriculum or even some file folder games.


BONUS: If you haven't thought of how you are going to start collecting data, let me tell you a little secret.  The best way to do this is to start collecting data digitally through google forms and using personalized QR forms, you can read the blog post all about it here.  However, if you are still old school and really like to take data digitally, I have a whole set of printable data sheets here!

Well, that is all of the tips that I have for you.  Make sure you grab the PDF that lists all of these tips on one PDF for you to have on hand when you need it.

Hopefully, this list makes your first year great!

you can read about self-care strategies in this post. 

You can pin this blog post for later here . . .


I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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