Friendship Circle Logo
Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Special Education

10 Ways a Special Education Teacher can Stay Sane During the School Year

No one said getting into special education would be easy...lesson planning, behavior management, paperwork on paperwork, while truly trying to make a difference in each student's life. It can be stressful at times, but there are ways to help yourself stay sane during this school season. It can make your life a bit more manageable and the results will show in the classroom.

1. Stay organized

As a special educator, it is critical to stay organized in order to stay sane. With all of the paperwork (IEPs, daily data logs, METs, REEDs, FBAs, BIPs, assessments, curriculum based measurements, etc.), all of the meetings (IEPs, teacher collaboration, team meetings, RTI meetings, conferences, data meetings, meeting mechanics, etc.), and all of the scheduling and lesson planning required of you, you must work to stay ahead of it all.

Find a system that works for you

As an individual, you are going to have to find a system that works best for you. As for me, I have a binder for each student on my caseload. In each binder are tabs with the following labels: reading, writing, math, IEP information, parent communication, previous years. This way, I can easily sort different assessments and student work. I also have all of their IEP information in one spot and all of their important work/assessments from previous years. I can take this one binder to the IEP meeting and have everything I need. I tried having one binder for my entire caseload and I know this works for many teachers but I personally didn’t like sifting through other student’s work at an IEP with parents.

Keep a binder for daily logs

I also have a binder that has daily data logs. These keep track of anecdotal notes I make indicating how students are progressing towards each of their IEP goals and objectives. I have to-do lists (both visual and written) for each of my students each week that they keep in their own personal folder in their own personal cubby. If you would like a sample copy of any of these things, please feel free as always to email me!

2. Maintain a personal life

I don’t think this one needs much explanation - a good teacher has to learn to set boundaries. You need to have a well balanced professional and personal life. Teaching, while certainly is a HUGE part of your life, can NOT define you. Take the time to call your best friend, hang out with others on the weekend, volunteer for your favorite organization (if you live close to one - friendship circle of course!), go on a date, or just spend a cozy night home with your family.

3. Take care of yourself

It is all too easy to get burned out at any job. I have previously written on the challenges of being a special education teacher. To continue to do well and love what you do, you must first take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise regularly, indulge in your favorite hobby now and then, and get plenty of sleep. I have never been one to maintain a workout routine but my coworker/close friend and I became accountability partners. We work out and socialize at the same time and I have found it to be a great way to unwind and let go of my stress. At my school, we as a staff have decided we needed a healthy lifestyle to be a goal of ours as teachers. Twice a week after all students are dismissed we do a 30 minute workout routine in the gym. It is so fun and such a great way to take care of yourself!

4. Keep students engaged

If your students are bored and learning isn’t fun in your classroom you will quickly encounter behaviors and lack of student progress. In order to stay sane, it is imperative that you keep students engaged by focusing on creating lessons that are inventive, creative, and hands-on. Of course this won’t happen for every lesson you teach every day but you can certainly create an environment that is warm and engaging for all learners. If your students start to get bored or restless, take a movement break (there are great options on youtube - my current favorite is jammin’ minute). Allow for comfortable reading chairs, fidgets, gum, etc. Find a way to meet the needs of all learners through kinesthetic activities, visual stimulation, auditory expression, or tactile centers.

5. Use the data

As special educators, we become somewhat of data collection experts. We are required to keep track of so much data it can be overwhelming! If we are expected to have this data, we need to use the data! Data should drive instruction. You don’t need to play the guessing game with your students learning and what you should be teaching if you collect the right data and really understand it’s implications for student learning.

6. Trust your instinct

To slightly contradict what I just wrote, data can’t be everything. You are a teacher, a professional, and an expert in your field. There are numerous reasons why a student may have performed a certain way on any given assessment. They may have been hungry, sleep deprived, anxious, nervous, overstimulated, or unmotivated at the time of the assessment or test. You work with your student on a daily basis and know their learning styles best. Do not just group students together based on what the data says but instead trust your instinct and make informed decisions based on both the formal assessments and the informal assessments, such as your daily observations, to properly plan lessons and instruct students.

7. Collaborate with colleagues

I can’t stress enough how important it is to collaborate with your colleagues, use each other as an invaluable resource, and trust one another. As a special education teacher it is imperative that I understand what the classroom teacher is doing in order to provide appropriate accommodations/modifications and support the student. I have to be in constant communication with the teachers in my building in order to best service my students and do my job well. If I couldn’t rely on my colleagues and didn’t have open lines of communication with them, I would really struggle!

8. Build relationships with your students

Teachers have the responsibility of getting to know each and every one of their students individually. We have to know our students on an academic level, social level, and personal level. If you do not develop a relationship with a student as an individual you are showing them that you are not invested in them personally and therefore why would they invest in what you are teaching? A child who feels a connection with you outside of the academic realm will understand that you care for them as a person and want what is best for them. They will be motivated to work hard for you and will want to succeed.

Hand Written Letters, Sharing the positives, Being involved

In order to build a relationship with my students I do several things. Before the school year starts I send each of my students a hand written letter in the mail letting them know I am looking forward to being one of their teachers. Every Monday, I ask each and every one of my students to share 1 positive thing about their weekend. This shows them that I am interested in knowing about their lives outside of school and has quickly become a tradition that my students love. If I accidentally forget, they will quickly remind me that they didn’t get to share about their weekends! I find out if my students are a part of any sports teams and then ask their parents for the schedule. I try and make at least one game a year. Sure, this takes a lot of time and effort in addition to all of my other responsibilities but I promise the payoff is worth it!

9. Discuss the good more than venting about the bad

For some time, I had this quote taped near my desk as a daily reminder:

“Keep your beliefs positive because... Your beliefs become your thoughts Your thoughts become your Words Your words become your actions Your actions become your habits Your habits become your values Your values become your destiny” -Mahatma Gandhi

As special education teachers, we face many challenges in our career on a day to day basis. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in our problems and want to vent. While I definitely agree you need to be able to share your troubles with a trusted someone, you also need to remember and discuss all of the good things about your job.

The challenges seem endless

There was a point when I was talking with colleagues at work about unrealistic student and teacher expectations, the lack of student progress according to data, the woes of having to adopt a new math curriculum, insufficient materials, the trouble with standardized testing, and all of the other burdens we faced. I would then go home and unload every single little issue to my very patient husband who sympathized with me but was only hearing negative thoughts. At this time, what I was really unintentionally communicating to my colleagues, family, and friends was, “I am a special education teacher and this job is not worth it.” With a startling realization, I saw many teachers communicating this very same message. Many times I’ve heard teachers semi-jokingly ask their student teachers or interns, “Are you sure you really want to get into this profession?” or “I would never recommend teaching to anyone after the year I’ve had!”

Teaching is Our Destiny

As teachers, it is all too easy to feel a lack of appreciation at work. However, for one reason or another, teaching is our destiny. It is a job we chose because we felt we could make a difference in the life of a child. We should be proud of what we do and share it with the world. The message we should be sending with our words and actions is: Yes, teaching is hard but every single minute is worth it.

Spread the Joys of Teaching

So, I encourage you to spread all the joys of teaching, especially if you are a special education teacher. Talk about that moment when a child you have been working with finally understood the process of addition with regrouping after weeks of practice, share the note left on your desk that warmed your heart with the words “Mis Fary, your the best,” recognize that progress is progress regardless of how minimal. When you remember all the reasons you became a teacher and all of the good moments in your day, you will not be bogged down with the bad but instead love your job and renew the passion you once had.

10. Establish a Positive Rapport with Families

I understand that one of my primary roles is to develop a positive relationship with families and form open lines of communication between the school and the home. Each student is part of a unique family and in order to effectively teach that child, you must first understand the family. Based on the first principle of the family systems theory, no individual can be understood without recognizing how he or she fits within the entire family. This is a crucial consideration when teaching.

Get to know parents and caretakers

In most cases, the parents or caretakers of a student are the ones who know that child the best. Therefore, their opinions should not only be listened to, but valued as an important part of the educational process. Parents can help you connect and build a relationship with your student, assist you in understanding the student’s preferred learning style, provide insight on the student’s strengths and weaknesses, volunteer in your classroom and lend you a helping hand! Establishing a rapport with families is critical from the very beginning of the school year.

How to establish a rapport

In order to begin this process, I send home a letter to parents outlining my goals for the year and any expectations I may have. I welcome parents into my classroom and assure them that I am available for any questions, concerns, or conversations regarding their child and the learning that is taking place inside the classroom. I regularly email parents with teaching events and educational objectives. I firmly believe in positive phone calls home when a child is having an exceptionally good day or achieved success at school in one way or another. Even if it is to communicate a seemingly small detail of the days events, it is important for parents to know that you are one of their child’s biggest advocates and you see that their child is special. The more families understand about my teaching philosophy and teaching approaches, the better equipped they will be when discussing their child’s scholastic performance and the more comfortable they will feel with their child’s education. I have read the research and the facts are clear; the greater likelihood of a child’s academic success is directly linked to family and parental involvement. In order to stay sane throughout the school year, I make partnerships with families a priority.

WRITTEN ON February 04, 2014 BY:


Melissa Ferry is a special education teacher for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. She earned her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University with an endorsement in learning disabilities. Melissa is continuing her education at Central Michigan University in pursuit of a Master's Degree. Prior to her career as a teacher Melissa volunteered at Friendship Circle for seven years.