I’ll admit it. When I first started in educational leadership as a charter school director, I saw student needs in terms of the “regular” student population and then those with “special needs.” But after many different educational experiences over the years with students, parents and advocates, including working in the Exceptional Student Services Division of the Arizona Department of Education, studying characteristics of effective districts, and now implementing professional learning systems at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, I am a firm believer that these students do not have special needs–they have the same needs as every other child: educators who believe in them, who hold them to high expectations, and who care enough to give them the specialized, individual supports needed to succeed.
Our students need “special” educators who see beyond the “special needs” labels, and as leaders we can inspire this mindset. There are times when the peripheral noise of all that is asked of school leaders can make us lose our main focus: achievement for all students. In those times, we need to get back to our core values and remember that we do more than manage things like budgets and schedules; we mobilize people to act. Not just any people, but people who chose a profession aimed at putting the needs of children, all children, first. To do this, we must remain focused in uncertain times and remind our staff and colleagues of our purpose. We are the ones with high expectations, we are the ones who know it takes a team to succeed, we are the ones who know actions speak louder than words, and we are the ones who are not satisfied with the status quo.
If we do not promote high expectations for all students, and see beyond the “special needs” labels, who will? Not who should, but who will? As leaders, we must commit to a culture of high expectations for all students and strategically drive a student-first mentality. We are obligated to have significant involvement in keeping the school’s focus on the achievement of all students. This includes shaping a vision of academic success for all students, creating a climate welcoming to education, cultivating leadership in others, improving instruction, and directing procedures to nurture school improvement (Wallace Foundation, 2013).
As effective leaders, it is imperative we consider all staff treasured members of the school team and support them as such. As a colleague during a site visit stated, “We respect their expertise and depend on them to work with parents to make our vision for a community of learners a reality” (Tkatchov & DeVries, 2017). We must remember to share responsibility with the entire staff, remove roadblocks that prevent the team from achieving collective goals and provide supports that promote continual growth. We must give them the specialized, individual supports needed to succeed and meet our expectations that we are asking them to give to the students.
Finally, and exhaustingly, as effective leaders we can never be content with the status quo. We live in a changing world and as leaders we must respond to those changes. For an effective leader, this position is more than a job, it is also a passion, and passion is not confined in a 40-hour work week.
After almost 20 years dedicated to this profession, I have concluded that there is no “regular” kid, and there is also no child whose needs we should not strive to meet. As leaders, our devoir is to create systems that focus on all kids and foster a student-first mentality in all of the professionals who make up our learning community. This “all students” mindset begins with us. We model it for the staff and students to observe and learn from. One person cannot do it alone, but one leader can set the necessary conditions for a group of people to make significant changes in the lives of kids.
Oran Tkatchov’s educational career has included such roles as a middle school English teacher, high school English teacher and charter school director. For over a decade he directed and provided professional development in the areas of special education and school/district improvement at the Arizona Department of Education. He currently supports professional learning at the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.