Charting the Course for Collaboration

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D.

The following is the first of three interviews with school principals who have created environments that facilitate collaboration between general and special educators.

Our first interviewee, Dr. Phyllis Milne, was the principal of Tabb Elementary School in York County from 1993 to 2002. Tabb Elementary is a fully accredited school with 660 students. The school has a diverse population, with 25% of its students coming from military families, 20% receiving special education, 25% receiving free and reduced-cost lunch, and 27% representing minorities. The school serves highly transient families, with approximately 125 students leaving and entering during each school year.

Question: Research has shown that the leadership of the principal is critical for successful inclusive education. Please describe what you did to create an environment that fostered success for all students?
Response: I was the principal for all the children. There was no need to close the door on any of our children. The principal and teachers need to have a shared belief system that includes the realization that all children are our business.

A major part of our success at Tabb was having the right people-good teachers, teachers who knew how to focus on what they needed to do. These teachers focused on the right goal-what is good for students. I wanted teachers who could connect with students so students could connect with the content. I did not want the teachers focused on competition between teachers, but rather on what was good for the school.

The principal's job is to focus the school on the important work. My job as the administrator was to remove the trivia so teachers could focus on the important stuff. If the teachers are bogged down with meetings, committees, and competition between groups, they do not have the time and energy to focus on instruction. I tried to protect the teachers from distracting issues. I removed obstacles. For example, I allowed free access to the copy machine and to materials. I tried to give the teachers more control over their environment.

Question: Tell me more about what you mean by the term the "right people"?
Response: I mean people/teachers who have a purpose beyond themselves; teachers who can work on a team; teachers who possess good communication skills; and teachers who know the critical content of their grade level. For example, it is essential that first grade teachers know how to teach reading and that fifth grade teachers know the content to teach the SOL objectives. So you need the right people who can focus on the essential tasks. As the principal, I could give them the time they needed to do their jobs.

I also tried to use the right people in the right places. I targeted certain grades with strong people. Having the right people/teachers included having special education teachers who were able to work well with other adults. They were able to share their expertise with teachers in such a way that the teachers welcomed the knowledge. Special education teachers were knowledgeable in content, strategies, and interpersonal skills. I designated one of my particularly talented special education teachers as a lead teacher. She modeled how good inclusive education should look. I gave this teacher extra planning time to mentor and organize team meetings. Putting her in the lead placed pressure on the other special education teachers to get into the general education classrooms and teach, not just assist.

I also tried to put the right people in the right place by including both general education and special education teachers in the mix. I spent much of my time talking and getting ideas from all of them. If something wasn't working I never waited until the next year to change it. I would ask the staff members involved, "Have we waited long enough to make it work, or should we change now?" If we felt we had given something a chance to work and it was not working, we changed and tried something else. All of this took lots of communication within the faculty, listening, and sharing of expertise. I saw my job as facilitating the teachers' ability to problem solve.

Question: How exactly did you provide the time and resources?
Response: First we established staggered resource schedules for music, physical education, computer lab, and art. Physical education took place twice a week. The teachers had a resource period every day, but the time changed each day. All grade levels had resources together, which gave teachers a common planning time every day. This schedule allowed the special education teachers to attend a different grade-level meeting each day. So the general education teachers could not necessarily expect a special education person the same time every day, because they needed to meet with grade-level teams.

I also tried to keep the special education teachers in two consecutive grade levels each year so they learned the content of those grades. Both the general and special education teachers looped with the students the next year so that they already knew each other, the students, and the content materials.

Question: Describe the professional development activities in your school.
Response: The purpose of professional development was to maintain everyone's focus on good instruction. I wanted to make special education strategies part of the general educators' repertoire, because we needed to differentiate instruction for all the children, not just those in special education. In our staff meetings I often started with a story or parable to make a point. In particular, I frequently used stories with themes around the importance of working as a team.

In addition to these stories, I presented the research on strategies based on brain-based learning. We focused on what helps students remember. Memory is an essential issue for any child, not just those with learning challenges. The teachers were encouraged to employ memory strategies for all students in all classrooms, based on the premise that we were educating everybody's children.

We started a "teachers as readers" program for which the teachers received recertification credits. We read books on teaching reading because this is an area in which all teachers need more knowledge. Reading the teacher's manual is just not good enough. I wanted teachers on all levels from all disciplines to know how to teach reading.

I also included reading strategies in my classroom observations. I told teachers I wanted to observe them using three different strategies to check for understanding. For example, I provided the teachers with white boards for the students to write on or hold up to show their responses. The faculty also practiced using different questioning strategies that were gleaned from our readings and discussion. I placed an emphasis on my being able to observe active engagement strategies when I visited classrooms.

Another strategy I used to help keep the focus on instruction was to make use of the test data. I disaggregated the data and met with teachers at each grade level to help them look at what they needed to be focusing on in their instruction. We looked at groups of students who were at risk based on how they performed on tests. Then we examined the exact kinds of questions the students were missing. The purpose was to help the teachers determine the essential skills they needed to teach.

Peer coaching for both special and general education teachers was also part of the professional development program. The teachers would observe another teacher demonstrate a particular strategy and then practice that strategy in their own classrooms. The teachers observed during their resource time or administrators covered their classes so they could observe. The teachers received recertification points for this activity.

Question: How would you summarize what you did?
Response: I had the right people with the right beliefs, and I gave them a say in how the school worked. I arranged for them to have time for planning with their teams, and I kept the focus on instruction. I tried to be respectful of their time and provided compensatory time if teachers had to work beyond their usual hours. Finally, I tried to acknowledge teachers who went above and beyond what was expected. I thanked people all the time for helping me make good things possible. What they did made the school look good and made me look good. The teachers and staff made it possible. I really appreciated what the teachers did to make Tabb Elementary work for all students.

Date: November/December 2003