By Andrew Hawk
After 18 years of working in classrooms, this fall I started my first year as a principal. I have now worked as a teaching assistant, a classroom teacher, a special education self-contained teacher, and a resource room teacher. In addition, as a parent, I have gone through the special education identification process with my daughter, who has a language impairment. People in each of these roles view special education through a different lens. This post is dedicated to the principal’s lens. Here are a few things that principals want their special education teachers to know.
We View the School as a Whole
As a teacher, I heard this from multiple principals. It is easy for the special education teacher to feel that general education is prioritized over special education. This is not true. It is just that general education students outnumber special education students by a lot. When making decisions about the budget, staffing, and room arrangements, principals have to take many things into consideration. No individual teacher is likely to be aware of all the moving parts that go into every decision.
You Are Important to Us
Depending on your principal’s personality, they may not really be able to describe to you how vital the special education teacher role is to the success of a school. Often the special education teacher assists with Response to Intervention (RTI) and behavioral issues for the entire school population, not only the students in special education. Knowing how to complete special education paperwork to keep a school in compliance is a challenge even for special education personnel. To top everything off, special education teachers are scarce. There simply are not enough to fill all the positions in our country. If you are a special education teacher, I hope your principal tells you how much you are appreciated. And even if your principal does not verbalize appreciation, know that you are appreciated.
Very Few Students Will Have One-to-One Teaching Assistants
Teaching assistant, paraprofessional, and instructional assistant are all titles used for the classified staff members who help teachers. Often, the special education teacher will be caught in between administrators and parents in the debate over whether a student will get a one-to-one helper. These helpers are becoming harder to get with each passing year. In order to secure one, it must be proven that the helper is vital to the safety and education of the child. It most cases, students will not have one-to-one helpers.
You Are the Expert
In many cases, principals need their special education teachers to be the experts in their field. General education teachers come to principals to discuss all kinds of challenges they see in their classrooms. The principal needs the special education teacher to be ready to help answer general education teachers’ questions. In some cases, you might even have to research some things.
We Appreciate You Managing Relationships with General Education Teachers
There eventually comes a time for all special education teachers when they have to tell a general education teacher that the general education teacher did something incorrectly. Maybe the teacher did not follow a student’s behavior plan, give an accommodation correctly, or fill out a chart. When this happens, the general education teacher may get defensive. Should you have to be grouched at by another teacher? No, of course not. However, it is better for this kind of feedback to come from the special education teacher. When it comes from the principal, it seems a lot more like a reprimand, and this can be damaging to the relationship between the two teachers. In most cases, the general education teacher will vent for a minute or two and then comply with your request.
It Is Best Not to Keep Us in the Dark
Never let your principal be caught off guard. Tell your principal if you have an upset parent or if the school is out of compliance for some reason. Your principal will appreciate your being upfront with them.
Regulations Are Unavoidable
Whether regulations come from the federal, state, or local level, they are rarely a welcome addition to a special education teacher’s routine. Part of a principal’s job, in my opinion, is to let their teachers vent about subjects like new regulations. So by all means, come and talk to us about your frustrations, but please keep in mind that unless a regulation comes directly from us, we have no more power than teachers to change it.
We Want to Know About Your Successes
Did you do something special to reward your students and the principal didn’t show up? Did your principal fail to notice when your students made big jumps academically? If your principal didn’t recognize something positive about the special education department, it was almost certainly unintentional. Please tell us about your good news, and remind us. We want to know. Invite us to come tell your students that we appreciate their hard work. You and your students matter to us.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for eighteen years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.
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Hi. Wondering if we can have a conversation about your journey from special education teacher to principal. I’m a doctoral student at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. I am trying to figure out the barriers we as special education teachers may have in pursuing an administration credential. I’m trying to figure out why so little sped teachers become principals.
Hi! I would be happy to talk to you about my time working in public education. In general, I believe that special education teachers sometimes view the position of “principal” as a general education position. Often special education teachers who want to go into administration become Directors and Assistant Directors of special education for school systems. This may have been different for me because I was once a general education teacher. I believe my special education background helped my resume get noticed as I went through the process of finding my first administrative job. I would be happy to go into more detail. Is there anything specific you would like to know?