• Meagan Gillcrist

As a Special Education Director, I left the classroom to support systematic change for teachers.

Since ‘retiring’ as a high school special education teacher, my phone has not stopped ringing. Everyone is asking the same thing, “Are you available to talk about special education openings in your area?” Although understanding the context of Dever Metro’s high need for experienced educators in the field, my answer, unfortunately, has to be no. This is true only because the proposal for systematic change in special education programming has to come from the educators themselves. Utilizing the knowledge and experience from those who have done the work can lead to long-term solutions.

Utilizing the knowledge and experience from those who have done the work can lead to long-term solutions.

Three years ago, I packed up my classroom in Newport News, Virginia and moved to Denver. I was ready for a fresh start. However, what I found was much different than I had expected. Having served in a high needs school with a well-established special education program, composed of multiple veteran mentors and clear systems made the transition to a new city and new school incredibly difficult. The lack of systems and experience around programming were eye opening. As an experienced educator with a Master’s Degree, I felt like a complete failure. 

After my first year, I needed time to reflect and determine the best course of action. I was returning to a school that was bringing on five new special educators, three of which were in alternative licensing programs and the others within their first years of teaching. The previous year we had lost a number of educators to factors associated with burnout. I understood in order to make a difference for students, I needed to go out on a limb and accept the school’s offer to become the Special Education Director and Coach. I did not know at the time that move would change my view of special education and the need for systematic programming for good. 

As a director, my goal became to help educators navigate the world of special education programming. I quickly realized that teachers were overwhelmed trying to teach to students needs while attempting to navigate the basics of special education compliance. As a result, they felt they were unable to succeed in their role with too many tasks and no proper systems in place. By creating clear and adaptable systems outlining how to manage caseload duties and teaching responsibilities in our specific environment, we could change how teachers viewed their work and how successful students individualized plans were executed.

As a team, we built case management routines, IEP checklists, parent contact lists, and accommodations lessons for students. We established year end goals and prioritized weekly coaching for teachers. Working as a team with a clear shared purpose we were able to increase teacher and student retention in our program. 

Unfortunately, many schools across the country have not been lucky enough to have experienced teachers leading the way, building systems, and mentoring those new to the field. There is a lack of understanding of what is required of a special education teacher. Those outside the field are pushing for inclusive practices and increased student outcomes, but teachers must first be trained and immersed in the special education culture.

The application of systems tailored to a schools specific requirements is the only solution that will give teachers the confidence and knowledge to educate students in special education, no matter the breadth or depth of their needs.

The construction of systems that support new teachers is something that is often overlooked. At Exceptional Education by Design, a company designed to create tailored plans for special education programs, we are working to take the burden off of new educators. These systems consist of management routines, coaching plans, and compliance management tools that support special educators so they can feel confident enough to implement these carefully developed systems in their daily practices. In prioritizing this work, schools are able to offer robust programs that cater to all students thanks to the diligence and knowledge of its special educators.

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