Creating Daily, Job-Embedded Support for Special Education Teachers

by | February 13, 2024

How can schools provide stronger support for special education teachers? Schools we work with generally start their strategic staffing planning by creating small Multi-Classroom Leader™ teams—grade- or subject-based teaching teams led a teacher with a record of student learning growth, who takes formal accountability for the team’s student results, for more pay. But some schools have begun to see the need for creating similar teams specifically for special education (SPED) teachers. Here’s an early look at what schools in two districts are doing, in the hopes of strengthening teacher retention and recruitment and better serving students.

In New Mexico, Carlsbad Municipal School District leaders have created a SPED teaching team in one school this year; in North Carolina, a Wilson County principal realized the need for this team leader role early in the year, designing it in hopes of a midyear hire.

Although they’re separated by thousands of miles, the districts face similar challenges in recruiting and retaining SPED teachers, negatively affecting students when new teachers struggle to handle all the issues around each child’s IEP (individual education program).

A Unique Opportunity for EC Teachers

In Wilson County, Principal April Shackleford saw success using these Opportunity Culture®® team models at Lucama Elementary. When she moved to Barnes Elementary, she found herself having to provide much of the support to exceptional children (EC) teachers when the school lost its resource teacher only a few days into the year, leaving it with just two self-contained classroom teachers.

Shackleford began to wonder why she wasn’t hiring similar support for them as for grade-level teams.

”Also, I thought it would be a great recruitment tool, because it seems like here the school has consistently recruited novice EC teachers, and I was like, well if I could add that [role], then maybe I can recruit some veteran teachers, and then I’ll be able to have an EC resource teacher that will be able to support the paperwork and the caseload and also provide services.”

Robin May, assistant superintendent for instructional services, said she was immediately open to the idea, viewing it as a pilot that could be expanded to other campuses.

“Initially, I think, both April and myself were excited about this truly from just the recruitment piece, because EC positions are very difficult for us to fill right now,” May said.

At the district level, the focus was on being specific about the selection requirements for the role, as well as how to determine accountability for it. The district looks primarily at state learning growth data to set a bar for the team leader roles; for SPED role applicants, along with looking at that data for the EC subgroup, they would look at compliance measures as well, May said.

Shackleford planned a weekly schedule calling for the team leader to pull out small groups of students for four days as the resource teacher, with times set aside during those days to go into the self-contained teachers’ classes to observe and give feedback. The fifth day is set aside for paperwork, personal planning time, and team planning and data analysis meetings.

“I’m excited to know that we are going to hopefully be able to close the gap and be able to see kids with IEPs meet their goals and grow out of their IEP,” she said. “I’m just excited to know that we’re going to be focusing on a subgroup that typically would not be considered an advanced teacher leadership role.”

Creating a Chain of Improvement in Carlsbad

In Carlsbad, Carrie Boatwright and Noni Kneeland, coordinators for elementary and secondary special services, respectively, helped establish a Multi-Classroom Leader™ team in a K–5 school using the partial-release model, in which the team leader has her own classroom for part of the day, with a Reach Associate™ paraprofessional leading her class when she steps out to lead and coach her team. The leader supports three teachers and about 70 students—one who has a self-contained classroom, one who is a resource teacher pulling students out of general classrooms for small-group instruction, and one inclusion teacher.

The support has already helped retain teachers, they say, and compliance has improved, both in how IEPs are written and how the service is actually provided, as well as in how the teachers facilitate IEP meetings.

“The dedicated time that we have for the support for the teachers has been huge for us,” Kneeland said. “The opportunities to model, observe, and provide timely feedback, and then create goals for the next action steps—that has all been extremely positive for us.”

The team leader “is able to go in and say, ‘when you see this on the IEP with this service time, at this placement, that’s how you service that kid,’” as well as explaining the reasoning behind it, Boatwright said.

Careful planning is crucial, they said, with the team leader holding high expectations and a clear schedule for how to run the classroom when she steps out.

“When she leaves to go support other teachers, we know that that [paraprofessional] has been trained and received quality strategies and is able to implement those, so there’s just no break in the instruction,” Boatwright said.

Having the SPED team leader role improves what the educators do at every step, starting with IEPs, Kneeland said.

“It’s been improving the documents themselves, but that’s the driving force for the services that the student needs to receive. So in improving the document, we’re improving the services, and we’re able to more specifically address the exact needs,” she said. “It’s kind of a domino effect…a whole line of compliance that she’s improving for us.”

For example, Kneeland said, the team lead has been able to redirect the time during which students are pulled out for small groups; that special education resource time is supposed to be used to directly work with that student on the goals that were developed in their IEP, not just as time to finish classwork or get tutoring on an assignment.

The team has also been able to rethink resource time, putting students from different grades who are at the same level together to best use all the teachers’ time and provide instruction specifically designed for each student.

An early challenge for the Carlsbad leaders was realizing that the SPED leader was not incorporated into the instructional team of leaders. In most schools, the team leaders receive support from the principal, but the SPED leader was receiving support from Boatwright and Kneeland at the district level—meaning it happened only during their weekly visits to the campus.

So they would advise other districts planning a similar position to thoroughly incorporate the SPED leader with all other team leaders in the building, and ensure that all teachers see SPED as a part of their work, not just something left to the SPED team.

“Create that partnership with the administrators from the very get-go…share that vision and give them the ‘why’,” Boatwright said. “We’re not doing this just because we think SPED is special–we do think that!—but we want to see our students grow. We want to see them progress, and we want to see them graduate from high school and we want to see them go either into post-secondary schools, training programs, or employment.”

As they look ahead to adding more of these positions next year, they aim to better explain what leading a team in this way is all about—and not about, Boatwright and Kneeland said.

“People have been duped before by districts where they’re like, ‘oh, you’re going to be this coach,’ and then all of a sudden you’re the instructional coach. You’re the curriculum coach. You’re the principal, you’re the recess duty person. You’re everything!” Boatwright said. “And the protection that our [team leaders] have is significant. Our district has gone out of their way, I mean, above and beyond, to really protect the time and the work that they do.”

For example, despite a heavy need, the district will not pull these team leaders to fill in as substitutes.

“We were going to use that schedule with fidelity and not use them for anything else, and that has been huge. The consistency—I mean, our kids need consistency more than anything else. But in order to improve the practices of our teachers, they have to have that consistent time,” Kneeland said.

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