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Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities: Perceptions of a First-Year Teacher

We report the perceptions of a first-year teacher of students with learning disabilities. The teacher describes her first-year challenges and successes; presents her views on assessment, accountability, and inclusion; and makes recommendations for new teachers entering the field. In addition, she suggests steps that teacher educators, school administrators, and experienced teachers can take to ensure the success of first-year teachers. We conclude with observations on teacher retention, first-year teaching experiences, and teacher-education programs.

First-year teachers of students with learning disabilities (LD) are faced with multiple challenges. Although their primary responsibility is the education of students with academic delays, other elements frequently play a role in determining whether they view their vocational efforts as successful or unsuccessful. Service-delivery issues, student characteristics, school climate, support systems, teacher preparation, paperwork requirements, administrative support, role ambiguity, and student behavioral difficulties may all affect the perceptions and consequent efficacy of teachers during their first years of employment.

In this article, we examine the perceptions of one first-year teacher of students with LD, focusing on the factors that contributed to her successes and failures and on the tactics that enabled her to survive her first year. Why is it important to identify the perceptions of first-year teachers? First, understanding their perceptions may be important in the retention of those teachers. The attrition rates of teachers in special education are alarmingly high. Yearly attrition rates among newly hired special education teachers have been reported to average 10% for the first 6 years of teaching, with figures as high as 30% in some areas of the country. One factor that has been shown to reduce attrition rates for beginning teachers is a positive initial teaching experience. If we can identify the factors that affect the perceptions of first-year teachers, perhaps we can design strategies to ensure positive initial teaching experiences and thereby improve the health, efficacy, and employment longevity of our most valuable beginning teachers.

A second reason for identifying the perceptions of first-year teachers is to communicate to other beginners that they are not alone. Lack of collegiality and feelings of isolation negatively affect the perceptions and increase the stress levels of first-year teachers, potentially contributing to decreased motivation, emotional exhaustion, higher rates of absenteeism, and increased attrition rates. By relating the stories of first-year teachers we can convey to other beginners that they are not alone in their experiences, that is, that others have faced similar challenges and have overcome them to become successful teachers.

A third reason for identifying the perceptions of first-year teachers is to gather information that can be used by university trainers, administrators, and other educators as they prepare teachers for careers in education. Trained teachers with better test scores and multiple certifications have been found to leave teaching sooner than those with lower test scores and fewer certifications. Teacher preparation programs and school districts are in a unique position to provide beginning teachers with needed support and mentoring during their early years, and to assist beginning teachers in developing realistic expectations, effective coping strategies, and an increased understanding of the role and demands of their profession. Learning more about the perceptions of first-year teachers may help university preparation programs and school districts to retain the “brightest and the best.”

In summary, there are multiple reasons to collect information from those who are “out in the trenches”—those first-year front-line workers engaged in the practice of teaching students with learning disabilities. In this paper, we investigate what a beginning teacher of students with learning disabilities thinks about her first year in special education. Our goals are to communicate to other beginning teachers that they are not alone in their fears and frustrations and to identify information that university personnel, administrators, and teachers can use to ensure the success of the first-year novices in our profession.

We begin with a description of the teacher’s school and the special education program in which the teacher worked. We next describe the challenges the teacher faced, the solutions she employed to deal with those challenges, and the successes she experienced. We query the teacher as to her views on assessment and accountability in general and special education, and on inclusion of students in general education. Finally, we ask the teacher to reflect on how well-prepared she felt for her first year of teaching, and to make recommendations for other beginning teachers.

Perceptions of our first-year teacher

Description of the setting

School and Staff. Our first-year teacher was hired as a specific learning disabilities teacher at a K through 6 elementary school in a large metropolitan area. There were 550 students in the school: approximately 65% White, 30% African American, and 5% other minority groups. The school’s attendance area encompassed many low-income housing areas.

The school faculty was composed of 25 teachers (21 general educators, 3 special educators, and one teacher of English as a Second Language [ESL]), one principal, and one half-time administrative assistant. The school also employed a part-time school psychologist, a full-time speech therapist, and a parent/school liaison whose job it was to facilitate communication between the parents and the school.

Students. Our teacher worked with students in the second and sixth grades (4 and 11 students, respectively). The mean age for the second-grade students was approximately 8 and for the sixth-grade students approximately 12. Seven students on our teacher’s caseload were African American, seven were White, and one had recently immigrated to the United States from another country. Students in the sixth grade had diagnoses of developmental delays, LD, and emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD). Students in the second grade had diagnoses of LD, EBD, dyslexia, and oppositional defiant disorder. One of the second-grade students was not officially labeled but had been placed in our teacher’s classroom because of combined learning and language difficulties. All students were functioning 2 to 3 years behind same-aged peers.

Program. The primary service delivery model for special education services at our teacher’s school was a pullout model. Our first-year teacher taught five pullout groups per day, each consisting of two to six students. A sample daily schedule for the teacher is presented in Table 1. Groups were formed on the basis of students’ academic needs and grade levels and focused on language arts or mathematics. The meeting time of each group was dictated by the general education classroom schedule. In many cases, the content of instruction in the pullout groups differed from that in the general education classroom. No co-teaching took place at our interviewee’s school, although our teacher reported that she would have liked to have had the opportunity to coteach.

Curriculum and instruction

Language Arts Instruction. Language arts instruction encompassed reading and written language. Approximately half of each instructional period was allocated to reading instruction, and the other half to written language instruction, which included spelling.

The primary focus of our teacher’s reading instruction was phonics and reading fluency. Two curricula formed the basis of our teacher’s reading instruction in these areas: Explode the Code and Read Naturally. The teacher supplemented phonics instruction for the second-grade students with controlled vocabulary readers and incorporated simple reading-comprehension activities (such as answering comprehension questions) into her instruction. For the sixth-grade students, the teacher emphasized reading comprehension more heavily. Students read short novels and then answered comprehension questions and completed vocabulary activities for each chapter in the novel. Occasionally, the teacher and students mapped the story on the board. In addition to the phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension activities described, our teacher augmented each student’s instruction based on the student’s individual needs.

TABLE 1. Example of a Daily Schedule
Time Subject Grade Number of students
8:45 a.m. School starts    
9:00-9:45 a.m. Language arts 6 4
9:45-10:30 a.m. Language arts 2 3
10:30-12:00 p.m. Language arts 6 6
12:00-12:45 p.m. Lunch break    
12:45-1:30 p.m. Math 6 2
1:30-2:15 p.m. Preparation time    
2:15-2:45 p.m. Math 2 3
3:00 p.m. School ends    

Note. The teacher’s caseload consisted of 15 students; however, some of these students received services in both language arts and mathematics. Thus, the number of students mentioned in the table exceeds 15.

Written-expression instruction was tied to the students’ reading instruction. As a follow-up to each reading lesson, students wrote individual or group stories. The teacher read and edited each story and returned it to the student for revision. Second-grade students revised and rewrote their stories one time, while sixth-grade students revised and rewrote their stories multiple times. The teacher also included grammar activities as a part of her written-expression instruction.

In spelling, students completed a pretest on Monday and a final test on Friday. On Tuesday and Wednesday of each week the students practiced the words using the cover-write-cover method: They covered the word, wrote it, checked it, and then repeated the process. On Thursday, the teacher taught students study strategies for their upcoming spelling test.

Mathematics Instruction. Mathematics instruction for both the second- and sixth-grade students focused primarily on the mastery of addition and subtraction of two- and three-digit numbers, with a special emphasis on place value, regrouping, and borrowing (see Note 1). When introducing new mathematical skills, our teacher used manipulatives and hands-on activities. As the students became more proficient, the teacher faded out the manipulatives to ensure mastery of concepts at an abstract level. At the end of the year, when students were proficient in the addition and subtraction of two and three-digit numbers, our teacher introduced single-digit multiplication and division.

Our teacher also taught strategies for solving word problems. She instructed the students to first underline key words in the word problems. She then talked about the meaning of the key words (e.g., more means addition, less means subtraction). Finally, she had the students write the equation, solve the problem, and check their answers.

School climate

Our first-year teacher considered the school climate to be supportive for both students and staff. The general education teachers, special education teachers, and educational assistants communicated on a daily basis. In addition, special and general education teachers tried to be flexible and accommodating for one another. For example, if the special education assistant was providing support for students in a general education classroom, he or she also might help non-special education students in that classroom who were having difficulties. Similarly, children who were not in special education but who had significant difficulties in reading or mathematics might be included in special education pullout groups. Our teacher reported that the supportiveness and collegiality between the general and special education departments allowed for joint problem solving. Consequently, resolving students’ academic and behavioral problems was viewed as the shared responsibility of both general and special educators.

Our first-year teacher felt well supported by the school administration and by the other teachers in the school. Because the school did not have a formal mentoring program, our interviewee sought out her own mentor. Our teacher states that she chose her mentor because she and her mentor “had similar personalities and teaching styles.” Our beginning teacher found her mentor to be a great source of support, not only in teaching but also in adjusting socially to the school. The other experienced teachers in the school were also supportive, providing consistent help in locating resources and materials and giving sound advice on managing students’ behaviors. In addition, they introduced new teaching techniques and interventions to our teacher.

Challenges and solutions

Programming for Students with Diverse Needs. One of the biggest challenges faced by our first-year teacher was trying to program for the diverse group of students on her caseload. Although she was licensed exclusively in specific learning disabilities, her caseload of 15 students included students dents with diagnoses of EBD, developmental delays, oppositional/defiant disorder, and dyslexia.

One of our teacher’s greatest challenges was working with a second-grade student who had severe reading and behavioral difficulties. This student received services from a reading specialist outside of school hours in addition to the services provided by our first-year teacher. The specialist not only worked directly with the student but also offered our teacher advice on educational interventions that were appropriate for the student. Our first-year teacher found this special service to be helpful in terms of programming; however, she often found it difficult to implement the suggested interventions because the student refused to work, worked poorly in a small group, and initiated power struggles with the teacher.

To more effectively instruct this student, our teacher pulled the student out of the small-group setting and provided him with one-on-one instruction. In addition, she, learned to avoid power struggles with the student. For example, if the student refused to write during class time, our teacher provided him with a different task for 5 to 10 minutes and then returned to the writing task. Similarly, if the student disagreed with the teacher on a particular fact (e.g., which bear was the largest in the world), the teacher quietly moved on to another topic rather than engaging in a conversation with the student about the issue. Our teacher felt that over time she learned to better understand and accept the student’s behaviors, and to deal with those behaviors in a calm manner.

Another challenge faced by our teacher was programming for a sixth-grade student whose reading level was significantly below that of the other sixth graders receiving services from our teacher. To meet the academic needs of this student, our teacher placed the student in a second-grade Pullout group. Our teacher considered this solution to be less than ideal, given the mismatch between the student’s age and the materials used for instruction, but the teacher believed that she had few other choices. Her preference would have been to instruct the student one on one, but there was no time during the school day to do so.

A final challenge faced by our teacher was programming for a student who had recently immigrated to the United States and did not speak fluent English. Although the student did not qualify for special education services, our teacher included her in a pullout group because the student experienced serious difficulties in general education and because the general education teacher was not sure how to integrate the student into the classroom. Further, the ESL teacher felt that the student’s academic difficulties were more severe than those of same-aged peers with the same native language. Our teacher found it a challenge to instruct a student with language proficiency problems. The techniques she used to teach her included rereading directions when necessary, having other students model academic behaviors, and relying on nonverbal prompts and gestures (e.g., pointing to pictures or to relevant material).

Other Challenges. In addition to the challenges presented by diverse student needs, our first-year teacher faced challenges related to scheduling and parental involvement. One of her first major challenges was to set up a schedule for her pullout groups. After many meetings with different general education teachers, she was able to create a schedule. Unfortunately, she had to repeat the entire process in the second semester because of changes in the specialists’ schedules.

Another challenge faced not only by our teacher but by other teachers in the school was low parental involvement. Many parents were difficult to contact or slow to respond to requests. Parents often did not attend Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, did not help children with their homework, and did not return documents that required signatures. Obtaining an IEP signature or eliciting participation in an assessment/summary-team meeting often required many contacts between the teacher and the parents.

Our teacher felt that over time she learned how to encourage parental involvement. For example, she learned how to suggest ways for parents to become more involved in the educational process without putting them on the defensive, and how to politely relate what she felt was best for the student without sounding confrontational. By the end of the year, our interviewee felt that she was adept at communicating with parents, although she acknowledged that this did not always translate into parents’ taking action.


Learning to better communicate with parents was one of the successes our interviewee experienced during her first year of teaching. A second success was learning to run meetings efficiently. Our first-year teacher’s job required her to conduct many types of meetings, including IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and weekly special education staff meetings (at which new student referrals were discussed).

At the beginning of the year, our interviewee was uncomfortable running meetings. Even the logistics of setting up a meeting were difficult: Ensuring that all documentation was complete, inviting all responsible parties to the meeting, and creating an agenda for the meeting all seemed to be daunting tasks. IEP meetings were especially challenging due to the number of people involved and the amount of information to be covered. By the end of the year, however, our interviewee was much more relaxed and more efficient in running meetings. She attributed these changes to the practice she received over the course of the year and to finding an agenda style that allowed her to cover the material in an efficient manner. (See the Appendix for examples of two types of agendas used by our first-year teacher.) By adding structure to her meetings, our teacher found it easier to keep the meeting focused on the student’s needs.

Our first-year teacher also related several success stories pertaining to student academic progress. One concerned the sixth-grade student with severe reading difficulties who had been placed in a second-grade reading group. Our teacher tried several different reading interventions to increase this student’s fluency and comprehension, and set high expectations for the student. Over the course of the year, the student made significant gains in reading, so much so that by the end of the year several general education teachers commented on the student’s improvement. The feedback from the general education teachers gave our teacher a sense of accomplishment and reinforced her belief in herself as an effective teacher.

Assessment and accountability

Our interviewee reported that she felt accountable for the goals and objectives on the students’ IEPs. Before designing or implementing new curricula, our interviewee reexamined students’ IEPs to ensure that her curriculum matched the needs of the students in each group. In addition, our teacher reviewed IEPs every few weeks to remind herself of the students’ goals and objectives.

Formative assessment also played a major role in helping our teacher to shape the curriculum that she developed for her students. Our teacher used curriculum-based measurement (CBM) procedures to monitor students’ performance in reading and written expression on a biweekly basis. In written expression, the teacher collected 3-minute samples of writing and scored and graphed the number of words written correctly. In reading, the teacher had students read aloud for 1 minute from text and scored and graphed the number of words read correctly. The teacher also used portfolio assessment techniques. She kept a file folder for each student that included classwork related to each student’s IEP goals. The teacher used the CBM and portfolio assessment data to monitor students’ progress toward their IEP goals and to evaluate her instruction. In addition, the teacher used the CBM and portfolio data during IEP conferences to demonstrate student progress.

Our interviewee saw marked differences in accountability between the general and special educators in her school. She perceived that special educators felt accountable for what was written on the IEP, whereas general educators felt accountable for moving students through the district’s curriculum. Our interviewee believed that these differences in accountability affected the extent to which special and general educators felt responsible to individual students and parents. That is, formulating and monitoring progress toward IEP goals and objectives compelled special education teachers to focus on the achievements of individual students. Similarly, cooperatively developing and evaluating IEPs with parents created a sense of responsibility to the parents. In contrast, general educators felt pressed–often to their dismay-to move through the curriculum, even when individual students were experiencing difficulties.

In addition to differences in accountability, our first-year teacher perceived that there were differences in the assessment techniques used by general and special educators. In special education, assessments were formative in nature and were used to evaluate student progress toward the mastery of IEP goals and objectives. In general education, assessments were summative in nature and used for the purpose of assigning grades rather than instructional decision-making.

Our interviewee speculated that the differences in accountability and assessment were most likely influenced by student numbers. With a limited number of students on their caseloads, special educators could focus on individual needs; however, the large number of students taught by general educators often precluded an intensive focus on students’ individual needs.


Students on our first-year teacher’s caseload were pulled out of general education for instruction in language arts and/or mathematics but received all other instruction in general education. In our teacher’s opinion, general educators’ drive to get through the curriculum and their sparse use of formative assessment techniques precluded more widespread inclusion practices.

Our teacher believed that the effectiveness of inclusion was related to the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Students who had positive attitudes and who were motivated to do their best benefited the most from inclusion, whereas students who had more severe academic and work completion difficulties benefited the least.

Our teacher cited two major drawbacks to inclusion that she saw in her school. First, she observed that special education students frequently struggled in their general education classes due to their reading difficulties. These difficulties were especially evident for the sixth-grade students, who were required to read textbooks in their science and social studies Classes. Because the textbooks often were too hard, the students had difficulty completing their classwork.

Our second drawback to inclusion cited by our teachers was the low work expectations and low academic goals set for special education students in general education. Special education students were perceived as having considerable difficulty in academic areas, and thus were expected to do less work and were not held accountable for the work. In addition, special education students frequently were placed in low-ability groups for reading and mathematics instruction, where low academic goals were set for them. Our teacher found the low work expectations and low academic goals to be troublesome. She believed her students-even more than the students with disabilities-needed ambitious (though attainable) academic goals.

We queried our teacher as to her thoughts regarding reasons for the low academic goals and low work expectations set by the general education teachers. Our teacher believed that general education teachers wanted to include students with disabilities in their classrooms but did not know how to do so. That is, they did not know how to effectively integrate a student with disabilities into a classroom of 26 to 28 students without disabilities. Further, she thought that general educators worried about negatively affecting students’ self-esteem. For example, she believed that general education teachers rarely called on students with developmental disabilities for fear that the students would not know the answer and would feel embarrassed. Although our teacher sympathized with the teachers’ reasoning, she observed that with time, the students with developmental disabilities became less and less engaged in their general education classroom at time so much so that they spent most of the class period resting. Our teacher concluded that it would have been more helpful for the general education teachers in her school to have the opportunity to learn more strategies and techniques for the inclusion of students with disabilities.

Preparation for the first year of teaching

Our first-year teacher felt that she was well prepared for her first year of teaching in special education. She attributed her preparedness to multiple factors. First, our teacher had experience working with children in a school setting before going into special education. She was licensed as an elementary education teacher, had substitute taught for half a year and had worked part time as a learning resource teacher for 2 years prior to entering a special education teacher-training program. Second, our teacher completed a full-time special education licensure program that allowed her to take classes concurrently with her student teaching experience. Our teacher believed that the intensity of this program was helpful. She could relate what she was learning in her classes directly to what she was doing in the field.

In our interviewee’s opinion, the quality of her teacher-training program also contributed to her preparedness as a first-year teacher. The feedback given to her by the university student teaching supervisor during her student teaching experience was positive and supportive. In addition, she felt that most of her professors were “extremely dedicated” to the field of teaching and made her feel like a unique individual, not “just another student.” Our first-year teacher also felt that she learned a great deal in her university classes and that much of the content she was taught directly related to her duties as a classroom teacher.

An outstanding cooperating teacher and student teaching placement further strengthened the effectiveness of our first-year teacher’s training program. The teachers at the school in which she student-taught made her feel like one of the staff and included her in meetings and in problem-solving sessions. The cooperating teacher gave her guidance in terms of teaching strategies and preparation of teaching activities, but allowed her leeway in adapting these to fit her own teaching style.

Our teacher felt that the training program and her student-teaching experience had provided her with a good foundation in the area of due process. She had been given multiple examples of well-written IEPs and other due-process documents, and used these as models to complete her own paperwork when she started her job.

Although our teacher felt generally well prepared for her first year, she described four areas in which her teacher- education program could have been improved. First, our interviewee felt that she was underprepared in the area of behavior management. Many of the classes in our teacher’s training program had focused on identifying the reasons for students’ acting-out behaviors rather than strategies to manage and prevent such behaviors. Our teacher would have liked to have learned more individual and group behavior management strategies.

Second, our teacher would have liked to have learned more about analyzing the entire IEP rather than selected parts of it. She found that she often focused exclusively on the goals and objectives pages of the IEP at the expense of the rest of the document (e.g., adaptations and accommodations).

Third, our teacher felt that she could have benefited from instruction related to managing and coordinating paraprofessionals. Our interviewee had to learn through trial and error how to make use of the paraprofessional assigned to her classroom. Although she thought that the use of a paraprofessional was somewhat contingent on personal teaching style and student needs, she felt that exposure to effective management strategies and models would have been helpful.

Finally, our teacher would have liked to have learned multiple formative assessment techniques. Although she felt comfortable with the use of formative assessment techniques such as CBM, she would have liked to have learned additional techniques such as the use of informal reading inventories.

She felt that this information would have been especially useful at parent conferences.

Recommendations for other beginning teachers

Our interviewee had several recommendations for teachers entering the field. First, she recommended that first-year teachers be assertive in finding the supports they need to do their job well. For example, our teacher suggested that if a school has no formal mentoring program, new teachers take it upon themselves to find quality teachers who are willing to answer questions and provide advice. Finding such mentors can help reduce the stress that many new teachers feel.

Second, our first-year teacher recommended that preservice teachers save materials developed in their teacher training programs to serve as models during their first year of teaching. Our interviewee kept the lesson plans, instructional materials, and tracking sheets she had developed for her course requirements. She modified and used these materials during her first year of teaching, saving her many hours of materials development.

Finally, our teacher recommended that new teachers try to locate examples of well-written IEPs and assessment summary reports. These examples could serve as templates until the new teacher develops his or her own style.


What can we learn from our interview with our first-year teacher? What are the factors that contributed to our beginning teacher’s success during her first year, that is, the elements that helped her to “make it through” her first year and contributed to her decision to remain in teaching? The story told by our interviewee in many ways reflects the literature. Our teacher cited the quality of her teacher- her- training program (Brownell et al., 1997; Fimian & Santoro, 1983; Yee, 1990), her positive student- teaching experience (Valli, 1992), the support of her mentor (Billingsley, 1993; Peterson, 1990; Seitz, 1994), and the collegial atmosphere among the teachers in the building (Miller et al., 1999) as factors that helped her to survive and thrive during her first year of teaching students with disabilities. Additionally, our teacher’s ability to learn on the job, her decision to hold on to materials she had developed during her teacher preparation program, and her use of well-written IEPs as templates assisted her as she met the various demands of her first year.

What can other beginning teachers learn from the experience of our first-year teacher? We think one important lesson is that even talented, skilled, successful teachers struggle during their first year.

We selected our beginning teacher because, based on her performance in our teacher- training program, we predicted that she would become a skilled and successful educator. Her responses to our interview questions suggested that we were likely not far off in our predictions. Our first-year teacher reported setting high goals and expectations for her students, tying her instruction to IEP goals and objectives, using formative assessment techniques to monitor student progress toward goal attainment and to evaluate the effects of instruction, modifying instruction when necessary by implementing different instructional strategies or creating different instructional arrangements, working collaboratively with other teachers, and attempting to involve parents in the education of their children. In addition to her teaching skills, our “first-year” teacher was, relatively speaking, quite experienced. She had already completed an elementary education licensure program and had student taught, substitute taught, and taught part-time before entering our special education teacher-training program.

Yet, despite our first-year teacher’s strengths, talents, and experience, she still struggled during her first year of teaching. She reported feelings of frustration and a lack of confidence in herself. She was challenged by issues related to diverse student characteristics, behavior management, and managing paraprofessionals. She felt frustrated by organizational limitations such as the lack of time available to provide one-on-one instruction and the difficulty involved in scheduling time for pullout instruction. She reported difficulty in learning how to manage and conduct IEP meetings and expressed concern over how to communicate with parents. In other words, as with most beginning teachers, our teacher experienced a period of adjustment during her first year.

A second and related lesson to be drawn from our interview is that it is important for first-year teachers to realize that they will learn on the job. Although our first-year teacher felt well-prepared by her teacher education program, she continued to develop and learn during her first year. She learned to run meetings efficiently, to communicate effectively with parents, to coordinate and manage the services of a paraprofessional, to manage students’ behavior, and to implement new instructional strategies and techniques. The learning process did not stop with graduation, but continued as our teacher entered her professional career.

What can university trainers, administrators, and other teachers learn from our interview with our first-year teacher? Much of what can be learned, of course, is program- or school-specific. For example, with respect to our own teacher-training program, our interview helps us to see the importance of combining coursework and practice, finding good student teaching placements and supervisors, ensuring that course content is applicable, and making students feel as though they are unique and important, rather than “just a number.”’ However, the interview also helps us to see the need to improve our instruction in areas such as behavior and classroom management, IEP analysis, use of paraprofessionals, and use of multiple formative assessment techniques.

Aside from program-specific recommendations, we believe we also can draw at least one general conclusion from our first-year teacher’s interview: What we do has an effect.

In our struggle to deal with the day-to-day issues and obstacles we face as a part of our jobs at universities or schools, we sometimes lose sight of the effects of our decisions on the individual. Our first-year teacher’s story reflects the extent to which seemingly small decisions made by university or school district programs can combine to have a large effect on an individual beginning teacher. For our selected teacher, a program that emphasized both practice and instruction, a good student teaching placement, a positive and knowledgeable supervising teacher, a supportive and skilled mentor, and a supportive faculty and administration all combined to create the skills and atmosphere necessary to help her survive her first year of teaching.

Other factors not mentioned by our teacher also may have affected her first-year experiences. Decisions such as caseload size and teacher role are often made on the basis of policy rather than practice; however, we wonder to what extent such decisions affected our teacher’s first-year experience. Our teacher’s caseload was relatively small (only 15 students), resulting in small instructional groups and a reasonable amount of paperwork. In addition, her role seemed to be clear and unambiguous, perhaps due in large part to the pullout nature of our school’s service delivery model. She worked in a separate setting with small groups of students who had difficulty. Although boundaries often were crossed , as seen in the examples provided, our teacher’s roles and duties as a special educator were quite clear (see Note 2). We believe that her small caseload and well-defined role may have contributed to her positive first-year experience.

Before concluding, we would like to include one reflection. Although many factors contributed to the success and satisfaction of our first-year teacher, probably the most important was the teacher herself. Our first-year teacher was an energetic, enthusiastic, talented, positive person who worked hard and was dedicated to educating her students. Our interview illustrates the importance of recruiting such energetic and talented students into our teacher-training programs.

We have described the factors that led to the successes and failures of one beginning teacher and the factors that enabled her to “stick it out” during her first year. We hope we have communicated to other beginning teachers that they are not alone in their first-year fears and frustrations. In addition, we hope that this story of one first-year teacher can help university personnel, administrators, and other teachers reflect upon the influence of their decisions and to identify information that can be used to ensure the success of the beginning teachers with whom they work.

Authors’ notes: We wish to acknowledge the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences for its support in tile preparation of this manuscript.

  1. The sixth-grade students who received instruction in mathematics were functioning at a beginning level.
  2. This is not to argue that a greater blurring of the roles between general and special education would not have been beneficial to students or teachers, but only to reflect on the fact that these distinct role differences may have served to make our teacher’s first-year experience easier.
The Journal of Special Education Vol. 35/NO 2/2001/pp.92-99
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