Emily Holland, BSEd ’20, All-Level Special Education
Robinson Elementary School, Robinson ISD
Functional Academics (first – third graders)
“Year One is always the hardest!” I heard that phrase a lot as a Baylor student as I got closer to graduation and to having my own classroom. But I surely did not expect to complete my first year of teaching during a global pandemic! How crazy! While I never anticipated the abrupt end to my Baylor experience in the spring of 2020, I still went into my first year as a professional teacher feeling incredibly prepared and confident.
As someone with a degree in EC-12 special education, I had very diverse student teaching placements during my four years in Baylor School of Education, which I know is why I began this year so prepared. I tutored seventh- and eighth-grade students in English, taught math to a small group of first graders, worked one-on-one with a student in a high school life skills classroom and vocational transition setting, and taught in an Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) classroom for my internship! So the obvious answer to, “Did the Baylor School of Ed prepare you for your first year of teaching?” is of course YES!”
I can’t even articulate how much I value the mentors and professors that poured into me for four years. Ms. Tamara Holey (Hillcrest PDS) beautifully modeled classroom management, I learned all I know about disabilities from Dr. Tamara Hodges, and I can say with 100 percent certainty that the teachers in my cohort are immeasurably grateful for the dedication, knowledge, and guidance we gained from Dr. Tracey Sulak!
Mrs. GayAnna Wagner, who was my mentor teacher during my internship, taught me how to put supports in place for students with autism, differentiate instruction, and encourage our students to be independent. I also started this year knowing how to write IEP (Individualized Education Plan) goals and PLAAFPs (present level of academic achievement and functional performance), communicate with parents, track data, and so much more that comes with being a special education teacher.
One thing that I was not prepared for was teaching students with disabilities through a computer screen. It is already challenging enough to differentiate instruction for your kiddos in person let alone online with that barrier between you. Our parents were given the choice of sending their kids to school in person or keeping them home for what we called “rocket remote” — online learning.
I started the year with about half of my students in class and the other half at home but parents were able to make the switch from rocket remote to in person at the beginning of each nine weeks. Most of my students ended up in my classroom, but I did have two that chose to stay home for the entire school year. I could handle the challenging behaviors, disengaged learners, or the unpredictability of each day. But that added layer of asynchronous/synchronous instruction is the main reason that I finished each day completely drained. However, this year gave educators the opportunity to learn and try so many amazing online resources that I hope we will all continue to use in the future. My students loved Boom Cards, and the app quickly became a part of our routine for morning technology and social skills time. It is interactive and reinforcing for young learners, can be used for whole group instruction or independent work, and you can find tasks for all content areas and skills.
One of my favorite things about special education is how big we celebrate small victories. For my students, “small” victories are often monumental. One of my students this year really struggled to engage and participate in class and did not like to be at school. At the start of the spring semester, I started doing a synchronous social skills lesson. For this student in particular who is on the Autism Spectrum, he raised his hand for the first time during social skills and I nearly cried. It was the first time he showed me he was listening, engaged, and WANTED to answer a question. I couldn’t believe it.
During these lessons we also learned about identifying emotions and appropriate ways to respond when we feel upset. After learning different strategies to help us have a “calm body” such as how to ask for a break, taking deep breaths, etc., this student walked up to me one afternoon and asked, “Miss Holland, can I take a break?” I gave him the biggest hug and told him I was so proud of him for asking. And he transitioned so smoothly into our next lesson after being given that break.
There are some skills that are harder for my friends to learn, and self-regulation is often one of those; they need to be explicitly taught how to manage all of the emotions that they feel. These are just two of so many sweet and powerful moments that I had this year. I could fill pages on how much each of my kiddos learned and grew this year.
If I could share three lessons with beginning teachers, they would be:
- Rest: There will always be work to do, papers to grade, and materials to prep. You will never feel done, because you want the best for your students even if that means losing sleep during the week or working on the weekends. Please rest. The work you do is important, and I know you are dedicated to your students, but set boundaries for yourself and enjoy this year!
- Ask: You aren’t supposed to have all the answers. Everyone around you wants you to succeed so don’t be embarrassed to ask the same question three or even four times.
- Encourage: Recognize each “small” victory made in your class and point out the qualities you see in your students. We focus so much on academics, but one of my favorite moments at the end of the year was awarding each student a character quality that I saw in them during the year. Encourage who they are as people in addition to their academic achievements.
Class of 2020, we did it! We survived what was undoubtedly the hardest year of teaching we will experience. You navigated the year with grace, perseverance, and determination to make this year wonderful for your students. I am so proud of you all!