I will never forget the night I was sitting on my back porch as the sun went down on that late Fall day. I almost couldn’t catch my breath as tears of sadness streamed down my face, and my shoulders slumped low in defeat and weakness. My heart was crushed and my inspired dreams of changing the lives for those with disabilities were deflated. I never thought this day would come so soon after only 13 weeks into my first year of teaching.
There was one student that changed it all for me. He was the first student I ever taught with autism. He was non-verbal, he had aggressive tendencies, struggled with transitions, overly sensitive to sounds, and found it difficult to deal with a change in his environment. His parents were very involved, knew their rights, and were a daily advocate. It was the family that everyone in the district knew, because they were passionate about striving to receive the best education, resources, and accommodations needed for their child. He would be transitioning into a new school and his first year of middle school, with a FIRST year teacher, ME!
I became a Special Education teacher because I wanted to teach those individuals with disabilities like my brother. I wanted to be the teacher he didn’t have throughout the years, the teacher that would give it their all to make an impact everyday. What I didn’t realize was that my students’ disabilities, characteristics, abilities, and supports were not going to be the same as my brother. Have you ever heard that saying, “When you know someone with a disability (autism), you only know one person with a disability”. You can’t lump them all together and teach them all the same!
So I take you back to the opening story and the feelings of defeat and failure. I had even thought at some point that I picked the wrong profession, and I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life. Remember me telling you about that 6th grade student with Autism, with the very involved parents? He was the reason for this front porch pity party. He was the reason I was struggling. He was the reason I second-guessed my profession. He made me feel defeated. I told you my lowest point came my first year, and I am so glad it did.
That day on the porch I called my college professor who was also my mentor. She in her very calm voice said to me, “Amanda remember your why. Allow your heart to guide your teaching, and not scramble to find all the right cookie-cutter strategies.” I went on to tell her about the student that I didn’t know how to help. She again stated, “You know everything about what to do, don’t teach to his Autism, teach from your heart as if he was your brother, connect with him.”
That one statement, changed my entire teaching career, and changed that student’s life forever. She was right. I had spent countless hours trying to pull out my college books to re-engage with information about the disability and what Strategies to use, I googled how to teach Autism (my first year was before Pinterest), and consulted with the special education specialist within my district on a weekly bases. See, college prepared me for Autism, development stages, accommodations, best strategies, but what it didn’t prepare me for was connecting to the student. Being a teacher isn’t all about teaching, it’s about connecting to understand.
I don’t tell this to scare you. I tell you this to prepare you, and give you these next tips that allowed me to become a confident teacher and impact the lives of my students as I was inspired to do, because I could now understand what I needed to do to help my students be successful.
Tips for my first year teacher:
1., The parents of your students are the experts (sometimes they don’t know this and rely on you to be the expert), but they will become your greatest resource of information about their child. Build a relationship with them, be in direct contact with them, and allow them to fuel you in becoming that teacher you inspired to be. Be open to their advocacy and take notes, because you will need to learn those exact skills as you develop yourself into becoming an advocate. Remember that student and his mom I was telling you about? His mother taught me everything about Autism, but more importantly her child. We learned together on a lot of things, and we were both okay with that. She still to this day is the one person who has impacted and taught me the most about autism.
2. Don’t get so caught up in the daily grind of teaching, assessments, paperwork, and routines that you forget to build a relationship with each of your students in a different way that is meaningful to each of them. Playing is teaching, and teaching is playing. When your students can trust you, find comfort with you, feel safe with you, and know you care about them …they will allow you to teach them.
3. Be confident in yourself and how you want to teach. Don’t lose sight of your own path when trying and testing out a new teaching method when instructional assistants, other teachers, and related services specialists tell you “that isn’t how we have done it in the past”. Be open enough to listen and learn from what they tell you, but confident enough to not lose sight of your why and the way you desire to teach your students. Lead and teach with passion, and that will be different from past teachers because you are you!
4. Trial and error will become your lifeline. Don’t develop a classroom that is your preferences and centered around “your go to strategy”. Evolve as you get to know your students. Adapt as they need you too. Don’t make them fit to your systems, you fit to theirs. When you can do that, you will teach them everything they need to know and more.
5. Most importantly don’t focus so much on the “difficult parts” of the day that might occur, that you forget to take a step back and see all the blessings and victories that are occurring most of the day.
So, you might be wondering what happened after that sad day on the porch and my conversation with my mentor. EVERYTHING changed. Of course he changed, but it was because I changed. It wasn’t him making it difficult, I was making it difficult for him. I was defeated because I was failing him, but all that changed. To this day, he is that one student who pushed me to be better not just for him, but for my other students, and for me. He taught me. He allowed me to fail at times, to the point he would laugh at me. We developed an understanding for one another, because I built a relationship with him. He learned the most he had ever learned, because he allowed me too. He allowed me because I took the time to start with a relationship, stopped teaching his “autism”, and started teaching him. I taught from my heart, followed my passion, and stayed true to my why! My first year of teaching failures taught me everything about my future successes.
Parents takeaway: always be an advocate for your child because you know them best. Be a partner with the teacher, help them to “learn” your child.
Teachers takeaway: teach from your heart, follow your passion, and stay true to why you started teaching in the first place
Community takeaway: everyone knows a first year teacher! Share with them this article because maybe just maybe it will keep them on the path to becoming a teacher who follows dreams and changes lives. Love on teachers !