Letter (Email) to a new Special Education Teacher


I received an email through my teacher website a few months ago from a young woman who was going into a self-contained (special education) World History class in like two weeks and she found some of my World History resources on my website, and was asking for tips.

After I wrote several paragraphs to this new teacher, I thought I would forward my response to the mentee/student teacher I was working with, and now that I’m typing up all the notes about the things I do as a mentor teacher and saw the email I forwarded, I thought I could format it a bit and share it with some other perspective or new teachers via this blog post.

Special Day Class Beckett Haight
My old classroom…best years yet!

Just a quick note.  A self-contained special education class is focused on a specific subject matter, but within an environment that the students find easier to access the curriculum.  This is seen in a smaller class (usually capped at 15 in California at least) in which all students have learning needs and the class is taught by a special educator, and generally a lot of the same content as the general ed class is taught, but at a slower pace, focusing on key standards, and with much more scaffolding and other supports.

That being said, I think most of the ideas presented below fit to supporting struggling learners in any setting though (i.e. co-teaching), so read on . . . !


The Email…


Hello E….

Sorry to lag in the response…..

In regards to how I guide the self-contained classes I think in general I try to use “best practices, and make things multi-modal so as to help students use their learning style strengths.  One thing they say about Special Ed is that a lot of what we do is just good teaching, so I think at the end of the day, if you keep that in mind, it will help.

But then on the day to day, this looks like:

A) Consciously building the learning styles of visual, kinesthetic and auditory into how you present the content, and how you have students review and prep for assessments (i.e. teach them study strategies for all the learning styles…you already have ascertained each student’s preferred learning style at some point…now they are given opportunities to use the ways these learners learn best while studying…..this could be an auditory learner reading notes out loud, or a visual learner using their notes to fill in a chronological graphic organizer, etc.).

NOTE:  As I read this email I wrote to this young lady I realize that since I wrote this there was a lot of news about how learning styles are a myth, and we have dozens of learning styles and mix and match……but I still subscribe to this idea to a certain extent.  I know I can’t remember people’s names as well if I don’t see it written; so I call myself a visual learner. 


B) Hidden curriculums……I am not sure if you are familiar with this term, but it’s something I always have in my self-contained classes (and at times while working with students with learning needs in the general education setting).  These are the things that aren’t part of my class content scope and sequence, but are things that are valuable for our students.

These are things like writing skills, note taking skills, punctuality, not leaving a mess, ability to work in groups, students understanding their strengths and using them, developing self-advocacy, and more.

As a spedukator sometimes you have to consider that a student might not later remember what year the war of 1812 was, but they will remember strategies for how to properly chunk a long-range assignment.

C) Cross-curriculur planning and developing units with other self-contained teachers.  These can work to help build your capacity by seeing what other teachers are doing, but I have also used it to help address transition goals they have (i.e. as an English teacher working with the math teacher to explore their community in order to access post-secondary services).


D) Differentiation… constantly thinking of the three ways to differentiate:


If you keep those three things in mind with every lesson, unit, and assessments, then you will be constantly thinking about the levels of your kids, their readiness for an activity, and how you can tweak it.

E) Having good data on writing skills, reading levels, interests, etc. so you can differentiate effectively.

I use an Excel spreadsheet for Student info to keep track of these sorts of things and it’s helpful for instruction and for developing IEPs..and other stuff.

Here’s an idea how it looks:

Student Info PICTURE
Student Information Excel TEMPLATE


F) Pyramid planning is a big area to focus on too.

 You want to think about, at the base of the pyramid (see image below), what do you want every single student in your class to come away with, even if they are functioning significantly below where their peers are (i.e. enduring understandings).  Here is my unit plan template I currently use BTW (it has the Enduring Understandings and all that).

Then from that base level you want to consider what you want most students in the class to understand, etc.


Pyramid-Planning--Image Beckett Haight

Pyramid planning is also a key focus while collaborating with teachers in the general education setting.  It helps cut to the core of what we want the students to come away with in a given unit or lesson and then we go from there.


G) Explicitly teach vocab.  Marzano has written some good books about how to systematically do this.


H) Show video clips when you can as the students get a lot out of this audio visual medium given that they use it a lot in their day to day



In regards to hands on activities, one thing I like to do is have students manipulate data on cue cards (or online).  This could be like having a timeline of the events covered in the last week in your class, then you cut that timeline up, get kids in groups, give them the envelope with the pieces and the groups have to race to put the cards in order.  I usually have a final card with a few questions and the first group to get the right order and answer the questions wins (something).

I also like to get post-its and get groups of students to practice categorizing the information.  For example we may have 15 words on the word wall (vocab development!) and I will get groups together and they will have to put all the words onto the post-it notes and then group them by category (i.e. background, foundations, outcomes, etc.).  This is a way to get students to really think on a higher level about what they are studying.  To see the big picture.

Groups to create study guides too. Or individually.

Lastly, since you may have students in 9th grade with like a 1st grade reading level, I like to use heterogeneous groups to help students access the content, use their strengths, etc.  So for example I may have a girl that can barely decode, but she can put the ideas together, and I will pair her with the young lady who can decode fluently but has weak comprehension.  The two of them can read a historical document together and fill out the graphic organizer you provided.


Lectures versus hands on PBL type work

With the Powerpoint lecturing, I like to do that, but I have two tricks.

One is to limit the content on each slide.  Make it more visual and multi….whatever.

Also I try to build in assessments or check for understandings every so many slides (and sometimes give some type of prize).

Lastly, I sometimes do this trick where I turn the Powerpoint into “Outline” mode.  In the picture below you can see how instead of thumbnail slide previews on the left sidebar it has all the words from the Powerpoint…

Outline View in Powerpoint
Powerpoint change to “outline mode”

…and then take those words and put them into a Word doc.

Then in the Word doc, cut out a bunch of words from each slide and have students fill in the blanks during the lecture.  This way they don’t get bogged down with the note taking, and they can have successes when they caught what they needed to put into the blanks.

And in terms of what you mentioned about not bucking the system, making some of these adjustments to a dense Powerpoint could help.  I use some of these strategies while co-teaching/supporting students in the regular ed class.  You likely won’t be changing any Powerpoints, but you can provide the cloze handout (fill in the blanks) and you can have at least one ‘check for understanding’ at the end….like an exit ticket or ticket out the door.


Behavior/classroom management

In regards to the fact that your students are EBD (Emotional Behavioral Disorder), I will leave you with a quote that I used to add at the beginning of each unit plan I had:

  “An engaging and relevant (to your students and where they are coming from) lesson will alleviate many behavior problems”

In addition to that, many students act out when they don’t understand.  So if you are differentiating in those three ways mentioned above, and you are building in accommodations into everything, the students will have successes and growth and will be feeling good about it.


Final thoughts

Let me know what you think about all this.  Let me know if you have any questions.  Let me know if you want me to check out any unit plans or lesson plans.  Also, as behavior support is my passion, let me know if you have any questions about how to work with students who are displaying maladaptive behaviors.

I’m glad you are reaching out.  Like they say about good parents, the ones that are reading the parenting books and seeking help are already good parents; the same thing goes for teachers.

(If you are reading this blog post) you already seem like a good teacher and you are only going to get better.





4 thoughts on “Letter (Email) to a new Special Education Teacher

  1. As I am reading this, I am saying to myself “I do that”. This letter is written not only for everyone to read, but to really take into account the meaning and message. I too teach in a self-contained environment. I use all of these strategies and methods that you introduced. But, what I am going to implement is the power point with blanks. This is a great learning tool for students to be able to incorporate those higher thinking skills. Thank you so much for sharing. I was so happy to read about another teacher who understands that all students can learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Michelle. It’s great to hear from a like-minded special educator! I hope the Powerpoint idea works well for your students.

      If you have a blog or Twitter or anything, please share, you seem like someone who could add to my virtual PLN (professional learning network).


  2. Beckett,

    The resources and links you have attached provide invaluable ideas for all educators. The pyramid planning ensures success for most of our struggling students. I also appreciated the practice of turning power point slides to an outline mode for better note taking. Most of our SPED students find note taking challenging and providing such a structure alleviates the stress.

    One of your ideas that prompted me to think about what “school” should really be for our students is the hidden curriculum. Your last sentence in that paragraph reminds me of the quote by Einstein; “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” The focus on skills, concepts and attitudes you mentioned is really important. I believe, our profession should readdress pure academics-life skills balance.

    Thank you for sharing your insightful ideas and best practices!


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