By Bridget McDonald & Heather Noncek

As Special Education Instructional Coaches in a suburban school district outside Chicago, we have quickly realized that the more we talk to principals and teachers about inclusion, one of the most significant barriers has been the lack of training around inclusive practices. Through no fault of their own, teachers and school leaders have not had the opportunity to prioritize inclusive practices in their learning. They may not have been given the knowledge, skillset, or resources to teach and lead teachers in inclusive classrooms. We are honored to be in a position where we could facilitate learning and coach teachers in implementing inclusive practices. We’ve also enjoyed supporting district leaders and principals in creating systems and structures that support inclusive classrooms. Here are a few things that we want teachers and school leaders to know about inclusive classrooms and how to foster an inclusive culture.

Asking the Right Questions

As we began our journey as special education coaches in multiple buildings, we realized we needed to ask the right questions to spark conversations around current inclusive practices for students and with staff. We then needed to reflect together as inclusive school teams(Individualized Education Program teams, English Language teachers, coaches & principals) about how we are currently servicing all students in our classrooms, what team members are currently involved in instructional decisions, and how effective our current instructional practices are for all student success.

One question we find ourselves asking is ‘Have you included (fill in the blank)?’ At first, this often referred to our special education teachers participating in similar experiences as their general education colleagues. Over time we have shifted our advocacy to also include our English Language (EL) teachers, gifted teachers, and related service providers. When planning with the administration, we must encourage all teachers to receive the same message and be mindful of the roles all play in supporting students. These conversations often felt uncomfortable but lead to many other questions which opened the door for a dialog that many people felt was necessary.  

Some questions to ask when planning:

  • Have we included (EL, related service providers, special education teacher, or classroom teacher)? Why or why not?
  • How does this apply to ____ ? What changes need to be made, so everyone has a clear understanding and purpose?
  • Is this what is best for the student? How do we support implementation?
  • How do we ensure our student is receiving consistent supports across all educational environments? Who needs to be part of this conversation and planning? What does follow-up look like?
  • Tell me about why we service students in this manner. 
  • How can we be innovative in meeting the student’s needs?  

Who needs to be at the party?

Often when asking the right questions will lead us to wonder if we are genuinely including the key professionals when planning for students. To best support students, we often need to reflect on who is involved in decision making when looking at educational planning. We often have the IEP team effectively collaborating to generate student goals and identify needs, but what happens after the meeting is imperative. To maximize the effectiveness of inclusive practices requires the input and support of a school-based team. Who is included in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), grade level curriculum planning, and IEP development? The team members that service the students in an inclusive classroom need to be invited to these critical planning meetings to learn about content and learning targets as well as share instructional strategies that will benefit all learners.  

We have found that getting everyone to the table is often a barrier due to time constraints such as conflicting schedules, meeting IEP minutes, and subbing. This has led us to explore other options. Many of our teachers collaborate electronically when available. They have worked together to store PLC notes in a common electronic platform so that non-classroom teachers can review and determine their instructional focus. Some PLC teams record their essential learning within these documents to highlight and communicate what is necessary for all students to know, which can then be the foundation of instruction for all teachers working with a student. As special education coaches, we firmly believe that everyone should contribute. We’ve provided learning for our special education staff that includes the use of discussion protocols, determining roles and responsibilities in different meetings, and planning documents to increase meaningful participation. 

Peer Observations & Teaming 

As a special education teacher or related service provider, you are often the only or one of a few at each building. This can make authentic learning and teaming opportunities a challenge as you are limited to the feedback you can receive from peers who have a similar role. We have encouraged our special education teachers to participate in grade-level PLCs so they can collaborate with teachers to support students. This was a significant shift from previous practice. We need to be mindful that to support inclusion, we have to team with all members of an educational team and rely on everyone’s level of expertise. We have a lot we can learn from one another and contribute to a team. At times, this hasn’t gone as smoothly, and we’ve worked with teams to define the purposeful roles of each team member.

Another step we’ve taken is to advocate for our teachers to observe one another at other buildings. This has opened the door for teachers to personalize their learning. When facilitating these observations, we make sure to identify what the teacher is wanting to see to support their learning, participating in the observation with a clear purpose, and then have time to debrief with that teacher so they can reflect and have a dialog about different instructional moves. So far, every teacher who has participated in an observation has shared that it was a positive experience.  

We are fortunate to have our special education teachers together three times a year. This is key when working with eight building total between 2 coaches. At these professional learning sessions, we have the opportunity to create a shared understanding of certain practices. This year we have teamed with our director, so it also allows time for her to set clear expectations, answer questions, and then as coaches, we can support teachers as we shift our practice. We also look to celebrate successes as these meetings and use many discussion protocols to foster more in-depth dialog around current practices across our district.  

Why Minor Shifts Can Have Significant Impact

As coaches, one of our favorite and most significant roles is advocating for students and teachers. As noted, we’ve done this by asking the right questions, ensuring all members of a student’s educational team have input in the planning and implementation of instruction and personalizing learning for staff members. These are steps that can be taken by anyone who has a passion for meeting the needs of all students.  

Since starting three years ago, we noticed that these minor shifts had a noticeable impact. For example, we get to team with all of our special education staff throughout the school year to personalize learning to their needs. This has been welcomed and has had an impact on their instructional practices. When first implementing PLCs at the elementary level, many of our teachers did not know their role or feel like they had a voice. After asking more questions and identifying the barriers, we’ve teamed with building leadership to develop systems and structures that support collaboration across disciplines. Although this is very much a work in progress, it is a strong start, and we look forward to continuing to advocate for the needs of teachers and students to ensure inclusive collaboration. Our goal is always to keep moving towards and inclusive culture so that all our students can have the best educational experience possible.  

About the Authors

Bridget McDonald is an elementary special education instructional coach with over 13 years of experience in the field of special education. She coaches and facilitates professional learning for general education teachers, special education teachers, and support staff so that they may effectively implement best practices in special education. Additionally, Bridget McDonald is a teacher leader who presents at local and national conferences on fostering an inclusive, collaborative culture in schools. Before coaching, Bridget was an early childhood special education teacher and autism coach for the Illinois Autism Training & Technical Assistance Program. Be sure to follow Bridget on Twitter @BridgetMcDonal!

Heather Noncek is a special education instructional coach at the elementary level and has been in education for over 14 years. She began her career in special education as a resource teacher supporting students in kindergarten through sixth grade. During her educational career, she got her Master’s in Literacy Education and even received an EL endorsement.

Recently, Heather decided to take on a new adventure that supports students receiving special services through the instructional coaching model. She works with teachers one-on-one and in small groups to collaborate and plan for inclusion, provide professional development, and to analyze data to plan for instruction.

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash