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How effective leadership and collaboration drive differentiation

4 min read


When I attend an IEP meeting, I have the distinction of sitting on all sides of the table. I am a parent of a child with special needs, so I understand the feelings a parent brings to the meeting. I also taught special education for many years so I can understand the special-education teacher’s frame of mind. Finally, I am a middle-school building principal so my lens is very wide when it comes to working with students with special needs.

Amid the push towards more inclusive settings — now more than ever — a building principal needs to develop staff members’ capacity to successfully meet these needs. Also, since high-stakes test scores are disaggregated, and in some instances, being attached to teacher performance, educational leaders need to have a wide lens when looking at achievement. The only way this can happen is to be in the classrooms and give feedback.

As more and more students are being given the opportunity to be in supported classrooms, more emphasis needs to be placed on working with general-education teachers and their role in supporting special-education students. Many general-education teachers only have minimal pedagogy on teaching students with special needs. This probably came from a general course taken while in college. The reality of having a student who learns differently on your roster can be very daunting for even seasoned teachers in this age of accountability. That is where classroom walkthroughs can be critical for ensuring a student’s and teacher’s success.

As a result of wanting to provide all my teachers consistent feedback in a non-evaluative format, I moved towards a formal program called observe4success. The strength of the program allowed me to customize evaluation forms to reflect my specific needs, while still emphasizing research-based practices. I was able to bring my iPad into the classroom and by the time I left, the completed form was already in the teacher’s inbox.  This system for walkthroughs allowed me to begin focused conversations on how to improve not only general-education practices, but our collaborative and supported classrooms as well.

I began the process by first looking at data for the entire school at the end of a walkthrough cycle. I did not want anyone feeling as if there was a finger pointing or blaming. The program allowed me to generate data related to student engagement along with teacher-directed and student-directed practices.  As more walkthroughs were completed, I was able to then break out our data to look at content areas and grade levels. However, the most important aspect for me was the ability to design the tool to give feedback to our inclusive teaching classrooms.

The walkthrough focused on both teachers being actively involved with the lesson, both teachers interjecting ideas, moving around the classroom and using inclusive language. There is a different message sent to students when co-teachers say “we” as opposed to “I” in a collaborative class. This was a simple conversation to have, but one that can have a tremendous positive affect. I also look for appropriate co-teaching models. Our first round of data showed that teachers were not always aware of other models besides team teaching that could be implemented in middle school.

One of our goals is to keep successful teams intact at the middle school and to provide them specific training on collaborative teaching models. My teachers have now been exposed to complementary, supportive and parallel instruction. I can have discussions to support both my general-education and special-education teachers as we work towards the common goal of achievement for all students. Part of our discussion is about what led to the choice to use a particular collaborative model for the lesson.

My hope is that teachers are looking at formative data to drive their collaborative teaching approach. A focused walkthrough allows for the gathering of crucial data to change practices, inform professional development opportunities and to encourage teachers to reflect.

Whitney Perro (@wperro) is a middle-school principal in New Milford, N.J. Perro has 26 years of experience in education, thirteen as an elementary special-education teacher and thirteen years as a building administrator.  She is a doctoral candidate in the field of curriculum and instruction.