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Newsletter: How to retain more special education teachers, make parents happier, and fix the education system (March 22, 2024)

In my third year of teaching, I found my groove.


I was running a Counseling Enriched Classroom and:


  • Students were returning from residential treatment and finishing their classes

  • Parents were writing letters of gratitude to school leadership about my program

  • Administrators were bringing board members to walk through my classroom to show it off


This was in stark contrast to my previous career as a barista where a customer once called me over and said, "This is the worst espresso I have ever had in my life".


I felt proud and I was enthusiastic to expand my impact and reach more struggling students. My administrator would often invite me to share what I was doing in my classroom with the whole team of district special educators.


I remember being flattered in an odd way when one experienced teacher said, "I wish I could just have your brain for a day."


Why special educators leave the field


Yet, when I reached out to leadership and asked to attend workshops or conferences, the response was always the same.


Silence.


Or


It's not in the budget.


See, as a special education teacher, I had accepted that my salary would stay the same no matter...


  • ...how many parents cried in gratitude at their child's IEP meeting for the positive changes they were seeing


  • ...how many students returned from residential treatment and found success in my classroom, reducing the district's annuals expenses by hundreds of thousands of dollars


What I could NOT accept was a ceiling on my learning.


What I could NOT accept was silence when I asked for opportunities to grow and bring more value to my students, families and colleagues.


How to retain more special education teachers, make parents happier, and fix the education system


No one goes into special education strictly for the financial reward.


They become a teacher to:


  • Make an impact

  • Be immensely helpful

  • Stimulate growth


To remain in the field, they must continually feel they are growing and evolving as an educator.


The missing piece in my career as a special education teacher was professional development centered around enhancing what I was focused on all day: executive function skills.


As a special education teacher, my daily challenge was to figure out how to help students:


  • Get motivated

  • Task initiate on their assignments

  • Sustain their attention

  • Communicate their needs

  • Regulate their emotions

  • And stay focused on their long-term goal of graduation


And while I had lots of tools in my toolbox from navigating life with ADHD with the support of a loving family, great teachers, and a passion for learning, there was SO much more to learn.


Teaching can sometimes like hacking through the weeds with a rusty machete -- exhausting and pointless. 



But there is nothing more refreshing to teachers then to step back, survey their approach among trusted colleagues, and return to their work energized. 

Administrators can support this by organizing periodic in-service days that include: 

  • Hosting engaging and knowledgeable experts around relevant topics 

  • Laying out some coffee and bagels

  • Holding the space to let teachers learn and grow 



I know this worked for me. Teachers, am I right?


Happy teachers = happy parents


When teachers are learning new skills and frameworks to address their most pressing problem, they return to the classroom refreshed and rejuvenated.


And there is no problem more pressing than a lack of executive function skills. Just look at the impact of ADHD (aka executive dysfunction) has on school outcomes: 


Teacher's most pressing problem -- a lack of EF skills, also known as ADHD
Teacher's most pressing problem -- a lack of EF skills, also known as ADHD

Creating the space and time for teachers to reflect, learn, and approach teaching with a fresh lens is key! 


This REALLY matters to students because they mirror their teachers. If a teacher is tired and disengaged, students will be tired and disengaged.


I once had a student tell me, "It's hard for me to get motivated to learn when my teacher comes to school in flip flops and a t-shirt, and just reads at his desk."


Now the teachers I've met are some of the hardest-working, most resilient people in my universe, but any system that doesn't reward creativity, enthusiasm, and better results is bound to have some challenges.


On the flip side, when teachers are engaged in an ongoing cycle of professional development that is relevant to their most pressing issues or pain points, they are ready to

  • experiment

  • go to any end to support student learning

  • and work creatively with parents and administrators.


This leads to happy parents who feel like the people spending time with their children each day really care.


Which leads to less lawsuits, changes of placement, and staff turnover.


Do you see how this cycle works?


Now for the final verse, let's take it from the micro to the macro view.


How to fix the education system


While I would love to see teachers paid more across the board, I understand this is a complicated ask.


However, did you know that EVERY YEAR there are millions of unused grant dollars just waiting to be accessed provided through the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)?


Unfortunately (or fortunately), private businesses like mine cannot apply for most of these grants.


However, forward thinking local education agencies CAN and they SHOULD use some of this grant money to:


  • Support their teachers professional development needs

  • Improving student outcomes

  • And building better partnerships with parents


For example, at the time of this writing, there is over 1.5 million dollars available to improve:


...results for children with disabilities by (1) promoting the development, demonstration, and use of technology; (2) supporting educational activities designed to be of educational value in the classroom for children with disabilities...

One of the many unclaimed grants from the Office of Special Education Programs
One of the many unclaimed grants from the Office of Special Education Programs

Off the top of my head, I could tell you right now that one of the biggest issues facing special education students and educators is that they don't know how to effectively navigate the tools at their disposal.


Districts spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on educational software meant to improve student learning outcomes, and 0 dollars and training their teachers and students on HOW to use these tools.


This is why I created the Semester Success Blueprint course to teach students, parents and educators how to:


  • Use Google Sheets and Tasks to track their assignments to completion

  • Communicate effectively with teachers by setting up Gmail templates

  • Use Google Docs to set up error log templates to prepare effectively for exams


We don't need anything new -- we just need to equip our teachers and students with the knowledge of HOW to use what is hidden in plain sight.




About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 


With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.


He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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