General & Special Educators Collaborating: Essential for Student Success

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D., and Sue Land, M.Ed.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is producing intense pressure on both general and special educators to ensure that all students achieve higher academic standards. As the school year progresses, educators are making conscious and unconscious decisions about how they will respond to NCLB. Many may adopt the view that this legislation is a compliance nightmare, or another hurdle created by politicians setting goals beyond our reach.

The complex instructional needs of the targeted students present a daunting challenge to educators that requires knowledge and expertise beyond that of any one person or any one discipline (Brownell & Walther-Thomas, 2002). Thus, an alternate perspective is to view NCLB as a pivotal opportunity for general and special educators to share expertise in an effort to develop and implement practices that dramatically enhance student learning (Mizell, 2003). To effectively meet students' needs educators must be willing to truly collaborate; that is, to share expertise across disciplines, to respect each other's strengths, and to challenge each other's ideas. Collaboration between general and special education is not a luxury but a necessity if both teachers and students are to survive and thrive in today's standards-based environment (Friend, 2003).

In order for collaboration between special and general educators to occur, certain structures, beliefs, and practices must be in place. Fundamentally, leadership must focus on instruction rather than compliance and foster the development of environments that are conducive to collaboration. At the same time, teachers must be willing and open to the new opportunities. A climate of mutual respect must exist within the school setting.

For true collaboration to occur between general and special educators, the following must be in place at the building and classroom levels.

Building Level:

  • Administrators must view themselves as instructional leaders for all children.

  • Administrators must model collaboration by creating collaborative teams such as site-based leadership teams, middle school teams, or school improvement teams.

  • Administrators must demonstrate effective interpersonal communication skills and be able to serve as facilitators in the problem-solving process.

  • Administrators must support collaboration between general and special educators by providing opportunities for shared planning and necessary resources.

  • Collegial staff development must be planned by and provided for general and special educators and sustained over time.

  • Teachers and administrators must be willing to deal with conflicts in beliefs and challenging ideas through honest dialogue and continued interaction.

Classroom Level:

  • Teachers must demonstrate strong interpersonal communication skills in order to be effective team members.

  • Teachers must understand and use effective problem-solving to address challenging instructional and behavioral issues.

  • Teachers must engage in professional development that expands their knowledge and expertise and redefines their professional roles.

  • Teachers must give up "territorial" issues around students, classroom space, and teaching methodologies.

  • Teachers must develop trust and respect for each others' strengths.

  • Teachers need to commit to ongoing instructional planning and evaluation.

A "collaboration quiz" that examines the roles and responsibilities of general and special educators follows this article. We hope this quiz will be used as a vehicle for facilitating a discussion of collaborative practices.

As education professionals we must renew our commitment to being "students of collaboration" in order to prepare ourselves to deal with the complexities and uncertainties of the future. No single one of us can do it alone (Friend, 2003). We must put our minds together to create a response to the legislative mandates that will improve the performance of students, teachers, and administrators alike. We must seize this opportunity to leave no child behind (Mizell, 2003).

Collaboration Quiz [pdf]


Brownell, M.T., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2002). An interview with Dr. Marilyn Friend. Intervention in School and Clinic, 37(4), 223-228.

Friend, M. (2003). Thoughts on collaboration for 21st century school professionals ... Moving forward or lost in space? Retrieved September 15, 2003, from

Mizell, H. (2003). NCLB: Conspiracy, compliance or creativity (II). Retrieved August 26, 2003, from

Date: November/December 2003