Even after 13 years of teaching in a self-contained special education classroom, last week I felt like a first year teacher. I told my peers I felt like “a first year teacher, on Mars, with my hands tied behind my back.” It was rough. I was not only trying to figure out how to meet the needs of my students and their families, but also meet the needs of my own children, and grapple with the fear and anxiety associated with our current world.
For the first few days, I was overwhelmed with directives, worry, and I felt an inability to problem solve. Thankfully, I have an army of special educators that I am lucky to call my friends. We connected on social media, via phone, even over Zoom. We banned together to figure this out. As my blogging teammate, Jen, advised in her brilliant blog post 5 Tips for Teachers During E-Learning: “Focus on what you CAN do.” Below is a list of what I found that I can do and the order in which I had to do them.
1. Make a Schedule
When I start planning for any school year, I start with making a schedule. I had to start at the same place when I was starting to tackle this new reality of teaching, however long it may last. We have a recommended schedule of classes, but we were also given the flexibility to meet our student’s needs. For my students, we worked out a combination of small group and individual Zoom sessions. I also built in time to record lessons for students who can’t access Zoom meetings during the day. I made sure to plan for time to work on ARD planning, responding to endless emails, and finding assignments for students. I had to give myself a few minutes to reset in between students (and serve as homeschool teacher to my own children).
2. Review your IEPs
Hopefully, we are very familiar with our students’ IEPs. In most cases, we wrote them. However, we have never looked at them through the lense of distance learning. We haven’t had to translate all of the language into plans and checklists for others to complete. We haven’t had to search exclusively for virtual materials to meet our students’ needs.
So now we have to dig back through the paperwork, and try to wrap our brains around how to meet this challenge. I have always known that Special Ed teachers are the McGuyvers of the teaching world, so I am confident that we can do this. I would suggest that you look back through your Autism Helper materials and see how you can translate them to an online format. For example, I am using the Basic Skills Vocabulary Unit to offer low demand activities to my students over Zoom meetings. I project it to my screen and they name what they see. A fellow teacher is using the Household Vocabulary Unit to create a scavenger hunt available to students via SeeSaw. It takes looking at the materials in a whole new way, but it can be done.
3. Make Checklists, LOTS of Checklists
In my extreme Type A, Enneagram 3, personality, I survive stressful situations on checklists. I have so many going right now. I created a list for each caseload student and what I needed to get to their family to help serve them. I created a list of free online resources for my students to access if they need additional activities to fill their days. There are so many online learning sites that have made all of their resources free during this time of crisis. I created a list of live Facebook/Instagram opportunities for Art, Music, Reading, Science Experiments, Museum visits, and Live Animal encounters. There are so many great educators who have a “see a need/fill a need” mentality. One of the most important lists I created was my “Daily Mental and Physical Health Checklist”. I tend to not take care of myself when things get hectic. I cannot continue taking care of my students and my own family if I don’t take care of myself.
4. Get Virtually Face to Face
I don’t know if your particular school district is supporting the use of video conferencing sites, but I am so thankful that mine currently is. We all do this difficult job because we absolutely love our students. It can be easy to lose our focus and motivation when we don’t get to see these precious individuals daily. It has been so vital for me to see the smiling faces of my students, even if it has to be virtually for now. Zoom sessions with my students have looked different for every single one of them. Truly, some are loving the little bit of structured time and stay on for as long as I am able to offer instruction. Some of my students need lots of motivation and limited demands and that’s ok. These opportunities to see them and interact with them keeps me going when I am struggling to figure it all out.
I’ve seen a lot of hashtags of #athometogether, I want all the other teachers (and parents who have become teachers) to know that we are #onlineteachingtogether. We are all wading through these uncharted waters.. We can do this, together.