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Let's face it--special education teaching is hard...but you can have this job and be happy. Take some time to make a plan for reducing stress in the new year!

How to Make a Plan to Start the New Year Positively as a Special Education Teacher

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I know that many you probably ended the days before break at the peak of high stress.  Let’s face it, teaching (and especially special education teaching) is stressful on the best day.  And it seems like we have fewer and fewer “best days” anymore.  The pressures for testing, accountability, due process, and everything can seem completely overwhelming.  I know…I get it!  Many of you might be wondering how you were ever going to go back to school after the new year.  I’ve been thinking about that in my own stressful journey and wanted to share some ideas.  I am hoping this post will help you prepare yourself to go back to school in January with a positive mindset.

Special education is not an easy job, but it can be incredibly rewarding. But only if we work to keep things in perspective and take care of ourselves. These are some thoughts to help you make a concrete plan of how you can make changes to make your job less stressful and more enjoyable.As many of you know, this fall has been extremely stressful for me and it may seem like I’ve gone off the grid.  I promise you I am still here and I’m still thinking about all of you.  My mom is in her late 80s and has a neurological syndrome similar to Parkinson’s.  She has fallen multiple times since the beginning of the school year and has moved from living independently to living in a health center / nursing facility.  We were lucky because she was already living independently in an apartment of a great facility that had all levels of care.  But even with that, she needs support and daily visits which sometimes feel like watching her quietly slipping away from me.  And I can’t begin to express how fortunate I am and how thankful I am for the caretakers who care for her everyday.

So with the exception of a couple of weeks in October, I’ve been living 4 hours away from home at my sister’s to care for mom. In November, my sister had a significant medical emergency.  We were off to the ER, 5 days in the hospital, 4 weeks in a subacute transitional hospital (an hour away from home) and now in a rehab center for physical therapy.  Thankfully she is back in the same town as my mom.

So, during these months I am extremely thankful for your support of my TpT store and for my consulting clients who made it possible for me to be away from home for so long and spend time with my family who needed me.  I’m also thankful for family who came down to support me and spell me so I could make my consultation appointments.  Meanwhile, here are some things I’ve tried to help keep myself sane during this crazy year.

Keep a Positive Outlook

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. How we think about things and how we perceive them have a big impact on how we react to them.Yep, it sounds a lot easier than it is.  And yes, I know it sounds so incredibly trite.  However, some of you may remember this graphic from a newsletter earlier this fall.  When my mom fell the first time, I was frustrated because I had to be away from my regular routine and life. In October when she fell again, I reframed my thinking to realize how fortunate I am to be able to spend this time with my mother before she is gone.  It has made a world of difference for me.  I realized I will have lots more time for work…but not much time left with my mom.

When I changed my outlook, I was a lot less stressed.  I expected things to work out…even when they didn’t.  That meant less worrying about what might happen.  And worrying about it wasn’t going to help much.  It meant that I am accepting that the situation is hard. But worrying about what might happen or resenting when things don’t go my way was only making me more unhappy.   Think about it with a classroom.  Worrying about the student you are going to get, worrying about what parents are going to do or say or stressing over what others think is only going to wear you out.  Instead, put your best effort into it and know that in the long-term, you are having a positive impact on those around you.

Remember Why You Do This

This is one of the most important elements I think to preventing burnout.  Make sure you know why you went into this field.  It’s not easy.  Taking care of my mom and sister isn’t easy.  But I  know how important it is as a priority in my life right now.  I know it’s the right thing.

Spend an hour or so writing down why you got into teaching special ed. Then remember why when things get tough! Click to Tweet

Spend a few hours of your break thinking really hard about WHY you do what you do.  Make a written list.  Then remember to post it somewhere and remind yourself why you teach.  Is it the feeling you get when a student makes a connection? Hearing a student say his first words or sounds? Knowing that you provided a safe place for a student to learn?  Remember those moments.   Record them.  Take a picture, write them down, keep a journal, hold on to those cards from parents and from students.  Whatever it takes, keep a memory of them.  I take pictures of my mom when she is smiling.  Those are the memories I’m making to remind me why these moments are so precious.

Create a Positive Support Group

If you are lucky enough to have a positive group in your school, community or online, that is awesome!  If you don’t have people who already support each other, think about finding one or even creating one.  Having people who support you and understand what you are doing everyday can make the difference between seeing a behavior problem as the last thing you can possibly deal with or seeing it as a challenge to try to figure out how to solve it.  If you don’t have a supportive network of friends, family, and/or colleagues, here are some ideas for getting one.

Find your marigold.  

Seek out people who are positive and avoid spending time with those who always have a negative spin on everything.  You know who the positive ones are on your staff or in your circle.  Make time to spend with them.  Reduce time you spend with the Negative Nellys.  They are bringing you down.

Look at your family.

Do you have family members who want to support you but maybe they just don’t understand?  Try to help them understand.  Having an outside perspective in this profession can be a true advantage at times.  Having someone who doesn’t try to top your misery (e.g., “I have 3 IEPs to write for tomorrow.”  “I know how you feel, I have 5!”) isn’t always helpful.  Sometimes someone who can just listen to the problem, even if they can’t fix it, can be helpful.  I found with my mom that sending a text to some family members at the end of the day with a summary of how mom was makes it easier for me to put it away and not have it creep into everything I do.  Sometimes they don’t need to respond…I just need to get it out and know they are listening.

Look online.

There are tons of options for those who support each other online these days.  The trick is to find a group that you are comfortable with and who sees things your way.  Facebook groups for special educators are places that you can share ideas and get support when you are struggling from others doing the same thing.  They open a world of opportunity when you might be  the only special education teacher in your school or the only autism / behavior / self-contained teacher in your school or region.  Just remember that it’s important to preserve confidentiality (which goes beyond not naming names) and avoid the trolls and Negative Nellys online.  If there isn’t a Facebook group right for you or you feel they are too large, lurk for a bit in some groups and find others who have similar views to yours.  Then form a Facebook group and ask them to join you for a smaller group.  I know I can’t get by some weeks without chatting with my online peeps.

Ask for Help

How many times do we feel like we are floundering all by ourselves.  Why do we let it get that far?  I reached a point when my sister got sick of finally realizing I couldn’t do it all.  You know what?  That’s OK.  I thought I could handle all of it but the emotional stress as well as the time management and lack of time for myself  took a huge toll on me.  And I finally reached out to family for help…and I got it.  My aunt was in the car 45 minutes after I was crying to her on the phone and they were down here the next day to help out.  Why didn’t I ask for help sooner?  I truly have no idea, but I would have been a lot better off if I had.  It’s OK to ask for help.  Knowing when you are in over your head or you can’t do what is expected is a good thing…not a weakness.

Accept Help

This one is harder for me than any of these tips.  It’s actually something that my mother and I have been talking about a lot.  I don’t know why it is so hard.  But you know what my automatic answer to, “Can I help you with any of it?” is?  “No, that’s OK, I can do it.”  It doesn’t matter if it’s a clerk in a store or a family member trying to take off some of the load.  When someone asks if they can help say, “YES!!!!!”  There are things that anyone do even if it’s laminating and cutting.  It’s not a sign of weakness.  Those caring about you don’t want to see you unhappy and struggling.  They want to help you.  So let them!

Make Time for Yourself

Burnout Prevention Tip: You will be no good to anyone if you aren't good to yourself. Click to Tweet

Throughout this whole last 6 months, everyone has been saying to me, “Don’t forget to take time to take care of yourself.”  I realized a few weeks ago (when things calmed enough for me to see straight) that I didn’t really know what that meant.  So I started to think about what that would mean.  I realized it meant trying to literally take care of myself.

As a special education teacher you have to make time for yourself to maintain your balance. Without it you will burn out and you won't be able to help anyone. But first you have to figure out what taking time out for you or taking care of yourself looks like for you.

It meant exercising.

I hate to exercise, but I love to ride a bike.  So, I don’t have my bike here but I got a great deal on one after Christmas and now I make sure to make time to ride.  It helps me process and have some time to myself where no one can reach me (unless it’s an emergency).

It meant eating right.  

I went to the grocery store when family was here.  Yes, that was a breakthrough.  I actually reached a point where I could not eat one more french fry and call it a vegetable.  I never thought I would see that day.  So I cleaned up my eating habits because if I’m not healthy, I can’t be any good to anyone.

It meant taking time to work on my stuff.  

At the end of the day I am sometimes so exhausted (emotionally) that the idea of doing one more thing is too much.  On those days, I try to do one thing for myself–even if it’s just making a hair appointment.  So there are lists of ideas, lists of blog posts, and half finished products on my computer that are all ready for me to find and make time to come back to.  I don’t have a lot of time to work on them but the creativity refreshes me.  Find out what working on your stuff means for you.

Burnout Prevention Tip: Find out what Making Time for Yourself means for you. Click to Tweet

There are of course lots of other things you can like working smarter and not harder / longer using organization tips and hacks.  You can organize your life in a planner if that works for you (Planner? I had one of those once…misplaced it in November I think).  You can do a lot of things.  But if you don’t do things to take care of yourself, you will find yourself being the one who needs to be taken care of.  And then you aren’t helping anyone.

Do One Thing This Break!

Broken crayons still color and non-Pinterest-worthy classrooms still function.So, the one piece of work that I think you should make time for on winter break is to sit down and figure out how you are going to take care of yourself and love your job.  It can be done.  Things will not be perfect but remember my Instagram post from the beginning of the year.


Broken crayons still color and non-Pinterest-worth classrooms still function. Click to Tweet



Resources to Combat Burnout

Looking for some ideas for hacks that help, ways to avoid spending all your time at work, ways to schedule “me” time into your day, etc?  Check out these resources for inspiration and ideas.

5 Things Special Educators Can Do to Prevent Burning Out

5 More Things Special Educators Can Do To Prevent Burnout

My Pinterest Board on Handling Stress has tons of other ideas and posts.

I hope this has given you some thoughts and ideas to start on for the new year.  And I hope you’ll keep coming back in the new year and share your questions and ideas.  And part of my taking time for myself will hopefully involve seeing more of you all!

Until next time,

Autism Classroom Resources

Looking for ways to gain confidence and cope with the pressures of the classroom? Why not come check us out.  Our community is waiting for you!

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12 thoughts on “How to Make a Plan to Start the New Year Positively as a Special Education Teacher”

  1. thank you Chris, I am so sorry to hear about your mom, you have a good attitude, spend as much time as you can with her, although it is hard. I walked away from my classroom on Dec. 23rd, leaving stacks of papers that still need to be graded and put into the system. Just thinking about returning makes my heart start pounding hard. whew, I just deleted all my complaints/worries because I realized I just need to talk to someone and you have enough on your plate. thanks Chris, take care and I wish you luck. Paula


      Thanks Paula. We take it one day at a time here–today was a good day. I completely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed…Good luck to you and definitely find someone to share it all with–it helps!

  2. Thanks for this!! I am really struggling this year both at school and home. As I get closer to retirement and less o hyaluronic able to handle the intense behaviors in my classroom I need to come up with a plan!!

  3. I love this article! Although I am now retired, I wish I had this while I was teaching. I am going to share it with my friends who are still teaching. . Thank you for this!

  4. Wonderful post…..thanks for making me remember to “take care of me”….I think that is valuable advice.
    Hope you have a great start to the new year & hope to see you soon!

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