By Andrew Hawk
The evolution of public education in America has prompted the need for collaboration between colleagues in public schools. This is especially true regarding special education and classroom teachers. For two years in a row, the Department of Education has adjusted the expectations for the amount of time special education students spend in the general education classroom. Both years, these adjustments have favored time in the general education setting versus the special education setting.
These adjustments have left some schools scrambling to form plans to change their special education model so that they are not left out of compliance. While shorter pullout groups and some co-taught periods are part of the solution, the bigger movement in the nation is to simply have more differentiation of general education material so special education students can spend more time in the general education classroom. This is not going to be an easy undertaking. Now, more than ever, collaboration between special education teachers and general education teachers needs to take place in a meaningful way. Having filled both positions during my career, I can see the challenges from both perspectives. Here are some tips I hope can help promote collaboration between these two equally important groups.
- What Should You Be Collaborating About?
Generally speaking, when a special education teacher and a general education teacher share a student, they should collaborate on how to best meet the student’s needs. This means both teachers need to provide input on progress toward IEP goals, testing accommodations, curriculum modifications, differentiation, and any extra plans the student has (health or behavioral). At every school where I have worked so far, these things were discussed between the two teachers prior to an IEP meeting. This helps expedite the IEP meetings.
- Be Creative When Scheduling Collaboration Meeting Times
One of the biggest challenges teachers face is finding a time to collaborate that fits into everyone’s busy schedule. While I am not suggesting that people should work outside their contracted hours, I do know that often collaboration is pushed to the side during busy times of the year. Collaboration is vital to the success of special education students and should always be a priority for teachers. If planning times don’t match up, both teachers should sit down together and find a weekly time that works.
- Understand Your Colleagues’ Perspectives
Points of view regarding students’ needs and how to meet these needs can be drastically different from teacher to teacher. Several influences help form a teacher’s beliefs, such as personal experiences, the college attended, generational gaps, and knowledge or lack of knowledge about special education. When teachers have a difference of opinion regarding special education services, often being aware of the root of a colleague’s educational beliefs can help bridge the gap.
- Be Comfortable Stepping Outside of Your Role
Generally speaking, the general education teacher is considered the content expert and the special education teacher is considered an expert on adapting material to meet the needs of special education students. When collaborating, colleagues should be comfortable with a free-flowing exchange of ideas. This may mean that colleagues make suggestions that cross over into another teacher’s area of expertise.
- Consider Co-Teaching
With the changing landscape of least restrictive environments (LRE), many schools are adding classes that are co-taught by a special education teacher and a general education teacher. Like having your cake and eating it, too, this allows a student to receive special education services and remain in the general education setting. This model is sometimes met with resistance by teachers who are used to maintaining a classroom independently. As always, give students’ needs the most consideration when making these decisions. If a student is two or more grade levels behind his or her same-age peers, a co-taught classroom likely would not best meet the student’s needs.
- Attend Professional Development Together
School districts take many different approaches in providing professional development to their staff members. If you work in a school district where staff members have a say in selecting professional development events, consider doing this with your collaboration partner. Choose a topic with the student(s) you share in mind. If a special education teacher provides services to an entire grade level, he or she might consider facilitating the professional development selections with all the teachers in the grade.
- Design the Collaboration Time to Meet Your Needs
All people have needs that will help them be successful in a task or project. Personally, I have always kept my collaboration with colleagues relaxed and informal. I have never experienced a problem with this approach. However, some people need a higher level of organization. If you work with a colleague who wants to make an agenda for your collaboration meetings or wants to keep minutes of what is discussed, I suggest being open to letting these things happen. Collaboration meetings should be designed to help the participants meet the needs of students, so the format of how collaboration takes place ought to be flexible.
- Document Dates and Times of Collaboration
This is a must for special education teachers. Some IEPs specify a number of collaboration minutes per month or grade quarter that must take place between the two teachers. If a parent issue ever arises relating to collaboration (IEPs refer to it as “consultation”), the special education teacher is going to need to produce documentation showing that collaboration took place.
- There Is No Easy Way to Say This, But . . .
If you are in a position where you know a colleague is doing something incorrectly relating to the services of a student, you need to let him or her know about it. (I have experienced this with issues related to test accommodations and modified homework.) IEPs are similar to contracts, and they need to be followed or changed. There is no easy way to tell colleagues that they are making a mistake, but I promise it is easier than explaining being out of compliance to a parent. It is my belief that it’s best to go to your colleague with these issues before you go to your principal. When you approach a colleague about an IEP that is being executed incorrectly, be as nonconfrontational as possible. Also, expect the person to get defensive. I have yet to meet someone who likes to hear about mistakes he or she has made. This is not an easy task, but it is part of being a special education teacher.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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