I remember the first time I spoke up at a national conference in front of my colleagues. We were at a national meeting of a few hundred urban special education administrators from around the nation solving a problem of practice. I was bold and feisty and on fire.
I was also not entirely right.
Soon after I spoke, a tall older gentleman stood and quickly dismissed my statements as shortsighted and inaccurate. During our lunch break, my colleague introduced me to him as one of the key authors of the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Noting my slight embarrassment, he said, “Keep speaking up. It’s OK to be wrong sometimes. It’s not OK to be quiet.”
Since then, as a teacher, district leader and now a coach of other leaders, I find myself in places where my voice is not only needed for students—it is often the only voice of its kind in the room.
We talk a lot about inclusion in special education, but too often we are afraid to take a hard look at equity. My research shows that inclusion alone will not lead to equitable outcomes for students with disabilities. It takes vision and leadership at both the district and the building level.
Equity for All Students Demands Leaders With Vision
I encourage new school and district leaders to take three very practical approaches to addressing equity for students with learning differences: Prioritize teacher preparation, create a collaborative culture and address your biases.Improving teacher preparation can help reduce turnover and build staff collaboration. Special education teachers have the highest turnover in the profession. Because they juggle three very different roles—teacher, counselor and compliance manager—they are easily burned out. Leaders need to have very strong educators in these roles.
If they don’t have these teachers in their buildings, they need to build them. Leaders should groom them and incentivize the work however they can. They also need to adopt a coaching model that includes the teaching of new concepts, implementation, observations and feedback. This is the only sustainable way to impact practice.
In addition to building strong professional development in their schools, leaders must understand the special education practitioner’s role in the building. They are not firefighters who come to help “problem” kids. They are not teacher assistants or office clerks. They are certified interventionists whose primary role (as paid for by federal grant dollars) is to help students grow in those areas impacted the most by their identified disability. They are consultants and partners to their general education colleagues; and in some cases, they are co-teachers.
Second, leaders need to create a culture of shared responsibility for students with disabilities. I have led training on special education for literally thousands of general education teachers, most of whom lamented that they never truly were “trained” in how to teach students with disabilities.
Explicit training to improve teaching for students with disabilities—no matter who teaches them—is critical. Leaders need to prioritize and make space for instruction and collaboration among all teachers of students with disabilities.
If possible, leaders should do this training with teachers prior to the start of a new school year. Leaders should set aside at least one whole day for teacher preparation regarding supporting diverse learners—include training on compliance, inclusive culture, universal design for learning, trauma-informed instruction, English as a second language support and social-emotional learning.
Many hands make light work. Addressing the mindset that “this is my job; and this is not” will begin to address the latent equity issues that can present themselves in your building.
Leaders Must Address the Belief Gap About What Diverse Learners Can Do
Finally, leaders must examine their own assumptions about diverse learners and allow space for teachers to examine theirs, too. When we don’t allow space and time for teachers and building leaders to confront their own biases and unpack their long-held beliefs about student potential, they dig in their heels further.
Then, we don’t see the change in practice our students need and deserve. In education today everything is urgent. We are pressed for time in a seemingly endless cycle of teaching, assessing, analyzing data, re-teaching and reassessing. But even under this pressure, great leaders must make time for teachers to unlearn toxic practices.When educators know they will be stretched and also know that they can live in that discomfort for a moment, then they are able to accept new ideas and new beliefs.
From there, they create new values and new practices, and through this, a new culture is formed. In doing this work, my hope is always that this new, more inclusive and equitable culture ensures all students can reach their fullest and greatest potential.
When school leaders use their voices to ensure they are meeting the unique needs of all their students, they are no longer a cog in the machine but a vehicle for change and justice. As I learned at that conference years ago, it’s OK to be wrong, but it’s not OK to be quiet.