What supports can school leaders provide to develop effective and committed special education teachers?

Page 9: Ongoing Professional Development

adults meetingNo two new special educators will enter the classroom with exactly the same knowledge, experience, or level of preparation. Professional development (PD) creates opportunities for these teachers to keep learning. New special education teachers need the same PD available to all teachers, such as content-based instructional strategies. However, new special education teachers also need PD specific to their responsibilities, such as strategies that address working with students with particular needs (e.g., learning disabilities, hearing loss), implementing behavior intervention plans, or coordinating support staff (e.g., paraprofessionals).

New special education teachers are likely to need professional development in a wide range of areas.

Area Examples
Content areas
  • Addressing content standards
  • Teaching reading
Disability specific topics
  • Instructional needs of students with learning disabilities
  • Characteristics of specific disabilities
Co-teaching and collaboration
  • Establishing relationships
  • Instructional structures
  • Collaborating with related service providers
Teaching strategies
  • Evidence-based strategies for working with students with disabilities
Use of technology
  • Assistive technology
  • Enhancing instruction
  • Transition planning
  • IEP development
  • Caseload management
  • Supervising paraprofessionals
  • Collaborating with support staff
  • Communicating student progress
  • Addressing disagreements
Behavior management
  • Positive behavior support
  • Functional behavior assessments

No one PD plan can meet all the varying needs of new special education teachers. For instance, a new special education teacher who attended a four-year traditional preparation program is likely to have different needs than will a new special education teacher who attended an abbreviated alternate-route program. By creating an individual professional development plan, school leaders can meet the needs of each new teacher. School leaders can begin this process by conducting a needs assessment with new teachers to identify their PD needs. Various types of professional development are outlined below.

Group Courses

This series of lessons is typically taught over time to new teachers with similar needs. For example, all new special education teachers will likely need information about procedures, such as how to write and implement IEPs. Many new teachers may need information about providing instruction for a diverse student body.

Example: In the Special School District of St. Louis County, new teachers attend a series of courses that are developed and implemented by full-time mentors. New teachers attend several courses across their first year. During the first few months of school, mentors assess the needs of new teachers related to their caseload. Using this information, all mentors in the district meet and decide on common topics for a professional development series (e.g., self-advocacy, instructional strategies for secondary mathematics, co-teaching, pre-emergent literacy). Following professional development, new teachers meet with their assigned mentor for assistance in integrating new knowledge into their classroom practice.

Group Meetings

These meetings are typically a time when all the new teachers in a district can meet to discuss or learn about one particular topic. Groups meetings are usually scheduled on a regular basis, and leaders and mentors must be sure to create an opportunity for follow-up for new special education teachers.

Example: In one school district, special education teachers attend group meetings on a specific topic once a month for two hours. At the beginning of the year, these meetings focus on procedural issues, such as writing IEPs or evaluating students. Later, the focus changes to topics such as instructional content strategies or co-teaching strategies and roles. The mentor and principal provide opportunities for follow-up activities. For instance, after attending a session on IEPs, mentors and new teachers write and conduct an IEP meeting together.


In this emerging practice, a teacher participates in either a formal online format (e.g., an online course) or in a more informal one (e.g., a Webinar).

Example: In West Virginia, new special education teachers participate in monthly Webinars provided through a state and university collaboration and also follow-up with a mentor. These Webinars focus on topics relevant to all new special education teachers.

No matter the PD’s format, structure, or content, research suggests that if it is to influence teacher knowledge, attitudes, and practice, it should:

  • Align with the overall goals of induction and contain clear outcome measures
  • Be implemented in a planned and organized manner
  • Follow best practices:
    • Occur over time (i.e., not a one-time workshop)
    • Provide active opportunities to learn with feedback
    • Align with the larger district or state context
    • Focus on student data
    • Provide a reasonable number of evidence-based strategies
    • Include follow-up with a mentor

Follow-up with her mentor after PD allowed Mary Kate McGinn to better incorporate what she had learned (time: 0:39).

Mary Kate McGinn
Mary Kate McGinn
Special Education Teacher
Special School District of St. Louis County
St. Louis, Missouri


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Margaret Kamman discusses a few best practices related to providing PD for new special education teachers (time: 2:13).

Margaret Kamman
Margaret Kamman, PhD
Project Coordinator, CEEDAR and NCIPP
University of Florida


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For Your Information

One challenge for new special education teachers is the time demands of the professional development they are expected to attend. School leaders must pay attention to the quantity of professional development new teachers are scheduled to attend with an eye towards maintaining a reasonable amount.


Using the induction goals you developed for Jamal in the activity on Page 3, create a matrix listing a) the type of ongoing PD you think Jamal should receive, b) the format of the PD, and c) the justification for your selections.

Jamal’s learning goals: Professional development activities Format of PD Justification
Objective: Learning content for the middle grades Develop knowledge of Common Core State Standards and assessments

Share interdisciplinary units and teaching ideas with other content teachers

State workshops on the Common Core State Standards

School study groups on each content area

Assistance from mentor on content area reading

These are areas where Jamal’s training is weak.
Objective: Learn evidence-based practices (EBP) Develop knowledge of a variety of evidence-based practices, particularly those found to be effective with students with emotional disorders State workshops

School study groups on EBP

Assistance from mentor on implementing EBP

These are areas where Jamal’s training is weak.
Objective: Develop skills in addressing disruptive and non-compliant behavior Web-based Modules

Weekly assistance from mentor and behavior specialist

Jamal completes two Modules on addressing student behavior and applies his knowledge to students in his classroom.

Weekly meetings with mentor or behavioral specialist are used to refine behavior plans based on student behavior data.

These are areas where Jamal’s training is weak.

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