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What Principals Need to Know about Working with Special Educators

need to know

A new school year means a new beginning for principals, a time to start fresh with new staff and establish good working relationships.  In CEC’s third edition of A Principal’s Guide to Special Education, authors David Bateman and C. Fred Bateman outline a principal’s responsibilities for providing services for special education students, selecting qualified staff, and partnering with parents.  The new edition also adds a new focus on co-teaching, teacher accountability, discipline processes, and references.

In this video, Bateman talks about what's new in the latest edition of A Principal's Guide to Special Education.

CEC Today recently sat down with David Bateman to talk about how principals can better understand and support special educators, enhance the communication and instructional skills of special and general education teachers, and work successfully together toward the best outcomes for all students.

CEC Today:  What’s the most important thing that principals need to understand about the work of a special educator?

DB:  The principal needs to have a good, fundamental knowledge of the scope of a special educator’s role. Special education teachers must know how to write a legally appropriate individualized education programs (IEPs) and keep up with the constant changes occurring with the paperwork required by IDEA.  Principals need to be able to read IEPs and understand how they should be implemented and monitored to ensure student success. 

What many principals don’t realize is that a special education teacher’s job can encompass teaching, curriculum and lesson planning, aligning those plans with college and career-ready standards, facilitation of meetings, progress monitoring, managing parent contact and communication, knowledge of special education law?and the mountains of paperwork that come along with that. 

In addition, special education teachers must be in constant contact with general education teachers for multiple reasons, including implementing specially designed instruction (SDI) in the classroom and collaborating with general education teachers and other related personnel. Special education teachers are also required to have content knowledge for the areas in which they provide academic support or instruction.

A Principal's Guide to Special Education
 by David Bateman & C. Fred Bateman

 Coming soon to the CEC Store -
pre-order your copy now!

CEC Today:  Our members often cite not having enough hours in the day when they describe their workloads.  How can principals better understand the time constraints special educators face?

DB:  Special education teachers often feel they are not given enough time to develop appropriate IEPs that meet the specific needs of each student. Principals need to be aware it takes much more time to write an IEP than special education teachers have available during work hours, which means that special education teachers spend a great deal of time outside of the school preparing an appropriate IEP.  The time it takes to write an IEP is different for each special education teacher depending on the degree of each child’s needs and the amount of measurable and observable data that needs to be included in the IEP.

Collaboration is necessary between special education teachers and general education teachers for multiple reasons depending on the student’s needs.  In addition, it takes time to inform general education teachers of the needs of the students in their classrooms.  It is important for the general education teacher to know what they need to do and how to implement SDI for each student.  Principals need to be cognizant of and sensitive to a special education teacher’s time allotment, which depends on case loads and needs of the individual students.

CEC Today:  What support do special educators receive from their principals?

DB:  An informal recent survey of principals and special educators about the supports provided to teachers showed that most principals represent their local education agency at meetings, help with non-special education training, and facilitate faculty meetings. Many also check lesson plans and participate in department-level and building-level meetings. Although a lot of principals conduct walk-throughs, these are only effective if they’re combined with non-evaluative feedback to teachers.

Because many principals have teaching experience, they can provide strategies for special education teachers to use.  It is nice to be able to utilize a strategy from the principal’s basket of tricks when the teacher runs low on ideas.   

CEC Today:  What did you find that special education teachers expect from their principals?

DB:  An informal survey of 20 special education teachers indicated that what they want most is time?time for progress monitoring, and time for students. Principals need to realize that special education teachers often do not get enough time to get to know and support students on their caseload.  There needs to be extra time allotted for the special education teacher to develop a rapport with the student, engage in progress monitoring and develop IEPs. 

Special educators also appreciate having a mentor, receiving training, and communication among all stakeholders (other teachers, local community, parents, etc.).In addition to providing support and advice, mentors can act as a supervisor whereas the principal performs the role of an evaluator.  Special education teachers need a principal who provides ongoing and consistent feedback; however, when it is not given, special education teachers need to be able to rely on the guidance and support of their mentor.

CEC Today:  What advice do you have for principals to enhance communication?

DB:  One of the best ways to engage in clear and direct communication is through the use of building-level meetings. Principals can use these meetings to learn about the needs of students who receive special education services. 

It is also important for special education directors/ or supervisors communicate with principals so everyone is on the same page regarding the expectations that have been placed upon the special education teacher. 

Principals also can enhance communication by fully participating in students’ IEP meetings?and not just making an appearance, but really participating. This is extremely beneficial for the entire team including the student, parents, teachers, and the school district in general. 

CEC Today:  Our members need professional development to continue to grow.  What can principals do to support their training needs?

DB:  Not only do special education teachers instruct students, but they need deal with the diverse needs of each student who receives services through special education.  Principals need to be flexible in order to provide time for teachers to attend training in aligning curriculum to standards, safe crisis management strategies, positive behavior support and intervention, transition, response to intervention, universal design for learning, direct instruction, co-teaching, and inclusive classroom practices … and these types of training should be available for both general and special educators.

It’s important for principals to keep in mind that special education teachers want to be included but do not want their time wasted.  This is a delicate balance and one requiring flexibility.  Even though special education teachers want to be included and involved in the teacher in-services, they also need time to work on their special education paperwork. So, when selecting professional development programs, ensure that the types of training offered special educators really enhance their work, rather than revisit information or strategies with which they’re already familiar. Principals should include special educators when it is necessary to be included; on the other hand, principals need to recognize when special educators do not need to be part of the whole group in-service or training.

CEC Today:  How can principals help teachers when it comes to relationships with parents?

DB:  When a special education teacher knows there is a parent who is upset and will be attending a meeting, principals need to come to the meeting with the ability to fully support the special education teacher, general education teachers, and any related service providers.  Principals need to keep in mind what is appropriate for the student, and balance that with their staff’s support needs.  Sometimes an IEP meeting needs to come to closure; the principal needs to be able to have the knowledge and skills to step in and table the meeting for another day in a way that respects all the attendees. 

CEC Today:  What is the principal’s role for successful co-teaching?

DB:  A co-teaching model utilizes the expertise of the general education teacher and special education teacher in the same classroom, working together to teach all students. Co-teaching does not mean that the special education teacher is an assistant in the general education classroom. In the most effective co-teaching model, both the general education teacher and the special education teacher provide classroom instruction. A critical ingredient for success is the support of the principal for the co-teaching team. 

Students must see both teachers teaching; teachers gain credibility and students are more open to learning and accepting help. Although often the biggest hurdle to overcome is the general education teacher’s reluctance to “give up” class time to the special education teacher, for co-teaching to be effective, the special education teacher should share teaching responsibilities such as conducting warm-up activities, directing independent practice, presenting the review or summary at the end of the lesson, assigning and reviewing homework, and so on.

The co-teaching model allows the general education teacher continue to deliver content, but the special education teacher must also contribute to classroom instruction. We know that it helps students with disabilities to be educated alongside their peers; co-teaching also benefits teachers, too.  Both teachers’ pedagogy is enhanced, all students receive more assistance, there’s less disruption if one teacher is absent (than with a traditional model, and a substitute), and general educators learn more specialized strategies that they can implement in other settings.

Co-teaching means, however, that the special educator may need time to plan with two or more other staff members. Collaborative planning is essential for seamless lesson delivery; scheduling a common planning time for these teachers is essential to the success of your program. To launch a successful co-teaching program, select two teachers who are open to trying a new idea and who are less likely to be territorial about sharing a classroom (and students). Planning together and sharing classroom and instructional responsibilities requires the cooperation and flexibility of both teachers. Once it works well, other teachers will realize the benefits of co-teaching.

David Bateman is a professor of special education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in learning disabilities, special education law, and introduction to special education.  He also is a former Due Process Hearing Officer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  His latest area of research centers on the role of principals in special education.