By now, everyone knows that America has a concerning undersupply of special education teachers—which makes it more important than ever for school administrators to support those teachers already working in their classrooms.
As a former special education teacher with nearly 20 years in the field, I can safely say that most special education teachers begin their careers with a passion for helping students. I certainly did.
The shortage of resources and inherent stress of the job can take a toll on even the most dedicated. Special education teachers and coordinators are pulled in a million directions, often doing the jobs of three people, working long hours and battling burnout. We need to help teachers go the distance by finding more ways to elevate and support their teaching experiences with the new and challenging student needs and behaviors that are taking place in the classroom.
In my roles as a special education coordinator and advisor, I’ve found these five practices to be particularly beneficial in helping teachers feel both appreciated and better equipped for success.
1. Be transparent in special ed
We too often think that we need to shield parents from the difficulties their children may be experiencing, or we avoid those hard conversations with teachers about the challenges we see ahead. As leaders, we need to bring them all into the conversation to problem-solve, share ideas, and think outside the box to find solutions.
The same with students—we can’t just talk at them. Student ownership is imperative, and we need to make them part of the team for them to be successful. It’s important in all of these courageous conversations to be empathetic, and encouraging, and to use clear language—not special education vernacular with its unfamiliar acronyms and jargon.
2. Find the leaders in your district and grow their capacity
Don’t miss the talent that already exists on your teaching staff. Invest the time to help them develop and extend their skillsets.
Early in my career when I was working in a resource room, our school principal saw something in me that suggested leadership potential. Through mentoring, that principal not only helped me contribute more to our team, but also helped me discover a passion for coaching that set my career on that trajectory.
Finding leaders in your building helps promote a culture of growth and reinforces a climate of teamwork that is needed to help combat teacher burnout.
3. Provide meaningful professional development
When you’re planning a professional development day, make sure the content and training you provide is relevant. It should fill real gaps and always involve actual student work, an articulated outcome, and feedback so that teachers can immediately apply that knowledge in their classrooms.
Don’t neglect your paraprofessionals—teachers will tell you that paraprofessionals are worth their weight in gold, so make sure they also have the training they need.
4. Integrate clinical expertise
Clinical advisors—speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, behavior analysts, and others—can contribute valuable and practical insight. Bring them in to work with a particular staff member or group of staff or provide additional perspective in the development of individual education plans.
I’ve seen great success come from including clinical advisors in professional development programs. In one session, for example, a speech-language pathology advisor introduced the district staff to alternative communication devices that could be helpful to nonverbal students.
5. Provide behavior and classroom-management training to your general education teachers
In the post-COVID classroom, teachers are encountering more behavioral problems, trauma, and students with special-needs who have not yet been identified. The better you can equip general education teachers to manage such issues in their classrooms, the better you can focus your special education resources on the areas of highest need.
While we cannot instantly fix the teacher shortage problem, education leaders can absolutely provide a climate of support for current staff. Be proactive, visible, and keep communications open. Remember that at the end of the day, we’re all here to grow students.
Talk to your teachers about what they need most and be transparent about the ways you can help them. Make sure they know that you’re not after perfection. The process of helping students grow will have its ups and downs, but working together as a team increases student and staff success.