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Things I Wish I Had Known…

…as I began the teaching job of a specialist. Yes, there were surprises. There were things I wish I had known and many I learned by trial and error. Let’s pause as I give you a little bit of history.

I taught upper elementary grades for many, many years and then had the opportunity to transfer to the STEM specialist position. I leaped at that chance without really even knowing what the job would entail. I made it my own!

I relied on teaching blogs and handbooks I was given and a few STEM kits. I quickly discovered almost everything I read about was a higher level than I needed so I started developing my own curriculum. That, as it turned out, was the easiest part of the transition.

So, you ask, what were the things I ran into that a little forewarning might have helped?

STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips and details are on this post- "Things I Wish I Had Known About Being a Specialist".

The Nitty-Gritty

I have broken this down to four items that were part of my learning time as a beginning specialist.

  • Preparation and Organization
  • 100% Engagement
  • Be Flexible
  • Using Technology

Prep and Organization

STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips about the organization of materials.

I started my new job with a total clean-out of all the storage cabinets in the lab. I needed to see what I had!

When I repacked those cabinets I did it in an orderly and reasonable way. As I put things away I needed to be able to find them later!

My cabinets are organized by topic- magnification, measurement, craft items, cups, and more. I also made an inventory book with everything listed by cabinet number and alphabetically. It seems extreme, but…

when there are 28 kids in the room and someone needs a needle and I can’t remember where I put them I can very quickly look in the inventory book and find the needles.

What I didn’t know is what on earth I would do when I had new materials to add to the collection. I moved things around and made space for them and changed my inventory book (which is the reason it is written in pencil). When I needed more space, and I did, I used a storage closet for big things. I also learned to use big plastic storage bins and label them. Even my filing cabinets were used for storage.

Now, how about prepping materials? The first few months I tried just placing materials on a central supply table and letting students gather their own things.

What I didn’t know is how wildly time-consuming this is! Where I will just toss in 6 straws, students will stand and choose the colors they need. So, I learned to prepare the materials’ bins myself. In the above photo, you can see how these look. I load those bins in an assembly line style and it works well. Students pick up a bin and then use it later to return gently used materials.

100% Engagement

STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips about the total engagement of this position.

I hoped students would love STEM class and be totally engaged and they were.

They loved coming to the new special and were very intrigued with building things. I chose very interesting beginning challenges that first month and “hooked them”!

What I didn’t know was that the engagement level for me was extreme- like 100% extreme. I discovered very quickly that I was not ever going to sit down – even during “breaks”. There is always something that needs to be cleaned up and put away or another class coming so I need to prepare their bins. During class time I never stop moving. I circulate around the room at all times, observing, asking questions, and listening to the talk.

Now, I know regular classroom teachers stay engaged too. I have written about this on previous posts and I will link one at the bottom for you. I know classroom teachers are actively involved in their students. But. When I had a regular classroom there were times I sat down with one student or a small group.

A specialist works a little differently. In the lab I am time-crunched. We have to work quickly and efficiently and there is just no down time. It did not take long for me to always wear jeans and sneakers.

Be Flexible

STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips about being flexible.

Now, I knew this was going to happen, but perhaps not as much as it did.

I knew to expect assemblies and field trips and weather delays. These were all things that interrupted specials when I needed to take my students to them.

What I didn’t know was the level at which odd things happen and how to cope with those when I was already prepared for a full class. Let me give a short list- students arriving late, teachers forgetting to bring a class, fire drills, tornado drills, lockdowns, parent conferences, and the school-wide awards ceremonies.

I have to really think on my feet nearly every day about how to switch things around and make it work. The one thing that still throws me for a loop are drills and lockdowns. In my regular classroom, I always explained procedures to students and we practiced before we had any type of drill. Now, stop and think about it. How impossible is it to practice all those drills with every single class? For fire drills and tornado drills I literally just tell students what to do as it is happening.

Lockdowns are completely different. Fortunately, I was observed by our school police resource officers during a lockdown drill and after it was over I talked to them at length. They helped me work out ways to contain the students and carry out a lockdown based on best practices. Also, we usually have a warning about a drill ahead of time and I can inform students about my procedures.


STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips about the level of technology that is needed.

Who could have foreseen the virtual world of learning when I started my specialist job eight years ago?

And yet, here we are, having to learn new ways of reaching our precious students.

What I didn’t know is how much I would need to rely on classroom teachers and the parents of students to carry out lessons and planning and gathering of materials. I also quickly learned to improvise.

How can I take a STEM Challenge and make it work if one student must carry it out at home? How can we make sure that students have the materials they need? What about students returning to school? How do we have specialist classes?

I still do not have all the answers for these questions. I know you don’t either. We just keep working and doing the best we can.

Specialist’s have a fabulous job with many perks. I love my position and am very thankful for the opportunity to learn so much about being a specialist. It changes daily so I just try to remember- be flexible, laugh a lot, and just keep working.

The posts below are a few you might like:

STEM Specialist's viewpoint of things encountered in the position- tips and details are on this post- "Things I Wish I Had Known About Being a Specialist".
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