By Andrew Hawk
In the decades since special education became a mainstay in American education, the details of it (such as delivery models and individual education plan formats) have continued to evolve. From state to state and even school district to school district, the way schools design their special education programs within the boundaries of the law can look quite different. The specific design of a special education program is highly dependent on the experience and beliefs of a school’s principal. Some principals take a hands-on approach and offer a lot of oversight to special education teachers. Other principals leave special education alone unless a problem develops.
Here are a few observations I have made over the years regarding what special education teachers want from their principals.
Ask Questions When They Are Unsure
The specific details of individual education plans and behavior plans can be complicated, even for special education teachers. Someone without a lot of exposure to special education may have limited knowledge of these things. Principals are the educational leaders of schools, but they are not expected to know everything related to education. The best principals ask lots of questions if they are unsure of something. This can save the school and the special education department time and money. For example, mistakes in disciplining students with behavior plans can quickly turn into due process hearings or manifestation hearings.
Understand How We Measure Success
Everyone in education knows the importance of and emphasis on standardized testing. This is not lost on special education teachers. It is our goal, too, to have our students pass state tests. However, the process of elevating a student from being behind his or her age peers to meeting grade-level expectations can take years. During this time, it is the responsibility of special education teachers to help their students recognize other ways to measure academic success. These ways may include focusing on a certain skill the student has mastered or comparing test scores from year to year to show growth. Students who constantly feel they are unsuccessful academically can become disengaged. These students are at a high risk of dropping out before they earn a high school diploma. Principals can help students’ and special education teachers’ morale by acknowledging student growth and effort even if the students do not pass the state tests.
Recognize That Curriculum Needs May Be Different
School districts pay a lot of money for curriculum adoptions. Once a large check has been written, principals may not want to hear their special education teachers say that the curriculum does not fully meet the needs of the special education population and will need to be supplemented. Principals can support their special education teachers by listening to the justification of such statements. It is great when principals are willing to meet their special education teachers halfway on curriculum differences.
Consider Special Requests
Depending on the time of year, requests for special equipment or an additional teaching assistant can lead to a small budget crisis for principals. Assigning a one-to-one teaching assistant to a student is never an event to enter into lightly. When principals receive a request such as this, it can mean a lot of work that must be completed in a short period of time. Please remember, the special education teacher knows this, too, and it makes asking all the more difficult. This should give some credence to special requests.
Be Prepared to Help Us with Parents
Disagreements between schools and parents regarding special education services, discipline, and resources are bound to happen. Principals and special education teachers should work together to be as proactive as possible when addressing disagreements in order to prevent those disagreements from escalating to legal matters. A principal can be supportive to his or her teachers by simply being approachable and ready to help when necessary.
Remember Us When Planning for Emergencies
Is there a student in a wheelchair on the second floor during a fire drill? Are we going to go on lockdown while a student is working alone with the physical therapist? It’s hard for an administrator to plan for every possible scenario, but planning for at least one or two means a lot to special education teachers. This is especially true if someone will have to carry a wheelchair down steps. It is nice to have a principal who includes these details in his or her emergency plans. When I was a classroom teacher, my principal approached me about helping to carry a wheelchair down steps in the case of an emergency when the student was on the second floor. I was happy to help, and our special education teacher was happy that this detail was planned for in advance.
Be Reasonable with Testing Accommodations
Even if a special education teacher works at a small school, he or she may still need help providing students with testing accommodations for state standardized tests. The best principals I have worked for had detailed plans for who would proctor accommodation groups and when the groups would take tests. This is a great relief to the 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 grades 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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