The first day of a new school year can be upsetting for kids with learning difficulties. And often parents dread sending their children off to meet their new teachers. But how do teachers feel about this big day? How do they prepare? What are their challenges? Two teachers — one in special education and one in general education — give us a peek into their classrooms at the start of the new school year.

April, a middle school special education teacher

Preparing for the new school year

Starting a new school year is an emotional process for a teacher. From the summer time until the first day of school, teachers plan, organize, and sometimes worry.

Before school starts, I read through all of my students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and try to sort out their individual needs. This is very difficult because I’ve found that most of my students’ strengths do not show up on standardized tests. From a file, I can’t see that a child is a marvelous artist or a great saxophone player. I can’t see that she is extremely punctual or organized. From the IEP, all I have to go on are numbers and narratives by those who have assessed her.

Getting ready for the school year is also a physical process. This year, I finally got my own classroom. Previously, I had to share with other teachers or conduct my class in a conference room. Although a new room is thrilling, it also requires a lot of work. After the summer, the classroom was thick with dust, the furniture was all shoved in one corner, and the whiteboards were filthy. I spent over a week moving desks and shelves. I also had to climb tables and ladders in order to hang artwork and posters on the wall.

Dealing with students’ diverse needs

Every caseload (the 28 kids who receive special education services from me) is unique and requires specialized planning. After reviewing my files for this year, I discovered most of my sixth-grade students need a great deal of help in written language. So I search through books and files for lessons and projects that are aimed to meet my students’ needs.

Staff support

It’s important, and required, to let the general education teachers know when a student in their class has special needs or accommodations. For each of my students, I fill out a profile sheet highlighting strengths, weaknesses, and accommodations specified in the IEP. The profile sheets will be distributed after the first two weeks of school. Parents sometimes worry if their child is in a new class and the teacher doesn’t know their child receives special education services on the first day. Yet, I want the student with identified learning disabilities to walk into her class on the first day of school and build a relationship with that teacher before any labels are attached or judgments can be made.

The first day of school

Like my students, I’m nervous about the first day of school. The night before, I can’t sleep. I keep envisioning all the horrible scenarios that could go wrong the next day. I wake up feeling like I’ve forgotten something or haven’t planned enough. I dream that the students won’t listen to a thing I say.

The morning arrives, and there is excitement in the air. The other teachers are excited and well rested. The students are happy to see friends they have missed all summer. The first day jitters leave as soon as first period begins, and I realize that after months of too much freedom, I am finally back to where I belong — in front of a classroom.

After attendance and the initial “getting-to-know-you” games, my nerves slowly calm as I reveal a secret to my students — a secret that when I was their age, I would never tell anyone. I tell [my students] I have dyslexia, and that I was in special classes just like them. As soon as I share this information, I can feel respect and hope fill the room. The students realize that I am a teacher who is on their team. I am a teacher who understands. We can now start off a great school year.

Adrianna, a fourth grade general education teacher

Preparing for the new school year

A couple weeks before school starts, I go into my classroom and set up the room. It’s nice to go there before all the meetings start so I can focus solely on the room. I feel the room really reflects my personality. When the children and parents walk in on the first day, I like to see them look around and smile.

I can tell they feel secure and comfortable when they see my fourth grade picture hanging on the door. My picture is the first thing I get out when I start to organize everything. It’s a constant reminder that I was once a nine-year-old girl, completely frightened of starting school again and wondering who my teacher was going to be that year.

Throughout the year, my picture will remain there to help me share my personal stories with the class. All the children become very acquainted with Adrianna as if she were an actual child in the room. She is there to remind them that we all have our fears and embarrassing moments, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. My “first day of school stories” always seem to put them at ease when I tell them how I used to run out of the class and cry on the first day of school — till about seventh grade!

Once my room is set up, I review the children’s cards which allow me to place the students in the room according to their individual needs. The cards give me an idea if the student needs to sit up front, or if he is a great helper for other students. I write a letter to each child, telling a little bit about myself and the things I like to do in my spare time. I ask various questions throughout the letter so they can write a response back to me — giving me not only their first writing sample, but also a lot of good information about each one of them.

Student’s diverse needs

I typically have around 32 students in the classroom. This is a big jump for the fourth graders because they’re used to having a maximum class size of twenty in California. It’s also surprising to a lot of parents who are unaware that class size changes in fourth grade. Fortunately, the children are becoming more independent and patient, so it usually doesn’t take them too long to acclimate to the larger class size.

Of the 32 students, I may have three to five who receive assistance from a special education teacher, one severely disabled student who is fully included, two to four English language learners, and three to five at-risk students.

My classroom is definitely filled with a lot of diversity — students who have their own individual needs. I try to do the best I can by teaching to at least three of the five senses at a time. For some students, I modify their assignments. Breaking into small groups is helpful after the whole class lesson is completed. Peer tutors are perfect for helping kids who are struggling. It’s like having another teacher in the classroom.

Staff support

Every year is different as far as assistance in the classroom. This year I have a reading specialist who comes into my room twice a week for 30 minutes to read with students who are almost at grade level. At-risk students leave the classroom to participate in a new reading program, and students with IEPs work with the special education teacher anywhere from 1 to 2 hours during the day, depending on their needs. Our team will probably have an aide for about two hours a week to do clerical work or assist the children. We all work together as a team to help each child be successful. The general education teachers and the itinerant teachers (those with specialized training who support instruction) meet to discuss the students regularly so we can evaluate their progress and decide what the next steps should be for them.

The first day of school

On the first day of school, I try to do activities that help the children and me learn all the new names in the class. I also like to do a hands-on, building activity to get them out of their seats and to see how they work in cooperative groups. The students are given straws, paper plates, scissors, and tape. They’re asked to build a tower with the objects they have received. While they work in their groups, I walk around to assess how they work together. This allows me to evaluate what I’ll need to discuss with the class as far as respect for others and the importance of teamwork.

We also make up our classroom rules and review the school rules. At the end of the day, we form a friendship circle and talk about our day. I compliment the class for a job well done, and let them know what is on the agenda for the next day. I feel this helps release any anxiety a child might have about what is expected of him the following day.

I try to make all the children feel special from the moment they walk into the classroom. We work on building a relationship because when a child feels comfortable with me, he’s more likely to trust me.

Once the comfort level is there, I begin building up the child’s self-esteem. There is nothing better than to see a child who once cried at the thought of putting a sentence on a piece of paper suddenly write two pages in the blink of an eye. It’s an amazing feeling!