For many principals, superintendents, and administrators (like me), evaluations aren’t just an end-of-year to-do. These conversations are a year-round responsibility for those of us helming teams of special education teachers, related service providers, and paraprofessionals guiding students most acutely in need of learning, behavioral, physical, and social and emotional support. We’re helping staff set benchmarks and make adjustments for each student.
These evaluations might seem daunting—special educators tend toward direct, teacher-led instruction, which can appear limiting in common observational models. Even if evaluations focus on instructional quality, we might not work or interact with these professionals regularly, especially if they’re stretched across schools or a district. There’s a well-documented gap in school administrators having the training to evaluate special educators. It’s natural to think: I don’t know much about special education. How am I supposed to facilitate evaluations?
We can’t take these moments of connection lightly. Most schools are facing crisis-level shortages of special educators. Almost half are leaving the field within five years, noting a lack of administrative support and work-life balance. Unsurprisingly, there are also significant links between job satisfaction and burnout.
Hearing directly from special educators offers a critical opportunity for administrators to understand how well-being impacts performance. Productive, empathy-driven conversations can also provide valuable insights into our habits and overall school climate. In my eight years as a special education district administrator, here are three questions I like to ask.
1. How do you receive and share news about students?
Engaging and educating special education students requires a village—and effective channels to share progress and updates.
As part of leading individualized education programs (IEPs), special educators frequently take on these communications, liaising between general teachers, paraprofessionals, related service providers, and families. It’s a critical network, and the larger the caseload, the more exhausting the work.
Why it’s worth asking
- It provides you with a perspective of the system’s overall effectiveness. How do updates on a student’s behavioral strategies, academic performance, or special services flow to staff or their family? What roles do individual members of the IEP team play in these communications?
- It identifies a special educator’s potential stressors and patterns of stress. Are they dealing with a challenging parent? Is someone not contributing to goal monitoring? More broadly, this question probes how individual staff feel about this network. Special educators who feel secure and supported by colleagues and administrators report less burnout.
- It strengthens long-term collaboration between general and special educators. I work with the same students year to year, so it’s essential that we have a communications network where everyone feels empowered to address trouble spots.
2. How many hours do you spend working outside of school each week?
Special educators devote themselves to students’ success, sometimes at the expense of their own needs. For example, your school may have educators and paraprofessionals forgoing their lunch breaks to work with struggling students.
Why it’s worth asking
- It gives insight into work-life balance and where someone needs additional resources. Maybe, in your conversations, you find that special educators spend hours adapting lessons where investments in district-wide curriculum development would be beneficial.
- It prompts introspection of how you talk about special education in your school community. Are the responsibilities for special services regulated by a department or individual? Or are the needs of special education students uplifted by all staff? Novice special educators who feel that school leaders lead with a collective responsibility mindset perceive their workload to be lighter.
- It impacts the students we seek to support. Teacher burnout can reduce a student’s motivation and, in turn, hurt outcomes. For staff already supporting at-risk and special needs students, these problems pose additional concerns.
3. When you have a difficult day, how do you like being supported?
Special educators experience significantly higher stress levels than general teachers. In some of our schools, they’re teaching 20 students, each needing individualized instruction.
Other special education service providers might be the sole speech-language pathologist or social worker overseeing dozens of students. In my experience, special education professionals are frequently the first adults to see signs of food insecurity, mental health issues, or domestic violence.
Why you should ask
- It encourages staff to reflect on their stress response, which may help you discern when someone is struggling. In my doctoral dissertation, I found that school leaders often misread body language and burnout.
- It hints at how someone might act in a crisis and their needs in the moment. For example, after a student accosts a staff member, would that staff member appreciate a listening ear? Someone to sit with them while they call or speak with a parent? A mental health day?
- It models healthy stress management. In asking this question outside of a given situation, we’re reminding special educators that asking for help isn’t a sign of poor instructional ability. Sharing how you de-stress can destigmatize these conversations.
Just as we strive to establish supportive, positive relationships with all our students, we should strive to cultivate the same with all our staff by prioritizing their welfare. Supporting special educators’ health and well-being isn’t just a nice gesture. It’s a hallmark of an in-tune, thoughtful leader, one open to hearing feedback and committed to giving our teams what they need to support all our students. Everyone deserves a safe, healthy learning environment to thrive.