5 Tips for Successful Collaboration Between General & Special Education Teachers
Jim Stovall, International Humanitarian Award recipient and Olympic athlete, once said of teamwork, “You need to be aware of what others are doing, applaud their efforts, acknowledge their successes and encourage them in their pursuits. When we all help one another, everybody wins.”
For general education and special education teachers, the “everybody wins” payoff extends far beyond the collaborators, to individual students, their families and the whole school community. Being aware of what colleagues are doing, applauding their efforts and encouraging them becomes especially important.
However, collaboration between general and special education teachers can be complex and challenging.
Can teamwork be less work? Here are five things to consider as you encourage collaboration in your organization.
1. Special Education Paperwork is a Team Activity
Recent data on how special education teachers spend their work time show that up to 50% is spent on special and general education paperwork, consuming up to 7 weeks each year per teacher. While special educators are ultimately responsible for IEP creation, general education teacher input and adherence to the IEP is necessary to:
- Ensure paperwork is up-to-date and includes relevant details for each student.
- Complete paperwork in time for the district to remain in compliance with federal special education regulations.
- Appropriately support the student in every class, every day.
Up to 50% of special educator time is spent on paperwork, research shows. #specialeducation
2. Special Education Meetings Aren’t Only for Special Education Teachers
Every member of a student’s support team is represented at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. However, after the IEP meeting, some special education teachers feel as though they are a team of one — meeting with parents alone and asked to provide information on student progress in general education classrooms. Meeting with parents together shows a united front committed to student success.
3. Make Time to Collaborate Across Specialties, Even if It’s Not Face-to-Face
Co-teaching is a complex process that requires time and investment from all teachers involved. Yet, finding the time to coordinate and lay the groundwork for successful co-teaching opportunities during a busy school day can seem borderline impossible.
Just the idea of trying to find time to collaborate can be stressful. A recent survey revealed that pre-service special education teacher candidates already had cross-departmental communication on their minds. Candidates spoke to the importance of keeping lines of communication open, having peers with varied experience, and being open to different perspectives.
Sharing lesson plans in advance, asking for input on modifications and a “we’re in this together” mentality are all ways to collaborate effectively — even when face-to-face meeting time is scarce.
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4. Avoid Thinking of Special Education Teachers as Disciplinarians
Some special educators report feeling like their general education colleagues seek them out mainly when students exhibit problematic behaviors in the classroom, instead of for proactive planning.
Here again, advance collaboration goes a long way to strengthening relationships and supporting students. Having behavior plans, strategies and accommodations created and shared collaboratively can help everyone feel more confident and in control when challenging behavior or academic struggles arise.
Nathan Levenson, former superintendent and Managing Director of District Management Group, explains, “A wide array of people in a variety of roles are often involved in supporting the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. It is important to facilitate teamwork with common planning time; allow this group to come together weekly to review student progress and adjust support strategies.”
5. Encourage and Acknowledge Each Other’s Expertise
A study of 1,210 teacher leaders showed that 68% of teachers turned to other teachers for support, over educational leadership or their larger networks. However, working in special education can feel isolating.
“Many special education teachers, when they’re coming into the field, don’t really know the type of job they may get,” notes former special education director Dr. Tom Reap. “Also, [when special education teachers do come on board] sometimes they have a unique position in the district ― maybe they’re the only teacher teaching a class of students with autism.”
Invite special educators to share their expertise. They have specialized training and strategies that can benefit all teachers. Even gestures as small as stopping by a special educator’s classroom to check-in and offer an encouraging word can go a long way in improving morale and helping him/her feel connected.
To Sum Things Up
Smooth collaboration between general and special education is at the center of providing meaningful support to children with disabilities. Meeting the goals established in each student’s IEP requires teachers from both areas to work together as an agile student-support team.
“The first thing that was vital to me was really understanding the IEP,” says former general educator Laura Spezio. “I would receive them prior to the school year, then, with my principal’s guidance, sit down with the special education teacher and the school psychologist and any related service providers to fully understand where the student was currently, where they were going and what best would assist that student.”
As you prepare for the next school year, consider if there are steps you can take to strengthen general and special education teacher collaboration in your district or school.
 Suter, Jesse C.; Giangreco, Michael F. (2009). Numbers that count: Exploring Special Education and Paraprofessional Service Delivery in Inclusion-Oriented Schools. The Journal of Special Education v43 N2. P 81-93.
 Da Fonte, M. Alexandra, Barton-Arwood, M. (2017). Collaboration of General and Special Education Teachers: Perspectives and Strategies. Intervention in School and Clinic v53(2).
 Berry, B., Daughtrey, A., & Wieder, A. (2009). Collaboration: Closing the effective teaching gap.