The pandemic challenged our way of thinking about education and, as I look back, I realize that the past year has given all of us opportunities to become better leaders.
We made it through the school year! I’ve been reflecting on this past year - on the challenges that we’ve overcome and what has gone well. One idea that keeps coming back to me is the role of a leader. Leadership has been a focus of my work lately - in fact I am trying to get a journal article published on the topic - what leadership practices in special education lead to positive change.
Although my leadership findings aren’t focused on special education during COVID, I was inspired to discover that many of us grew as leaders this year - parents, educators, school administrators, related service providers, and students.
In my work as a research analyst at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, we visited charter schools across the country - schools that were having success with students with disabilities, to find out if there were any commonalities. Many of these schools have leaders who have a personal connection with special education - some have a family member who has a disability, where others were special educators previously. In these schools, special education is included in the planning. The result is a positive, inclusive school culture.
In talking with some of these school leaders during COVID, it was these same leadership characteristics that helped them develop plans that did not leave students with disabilities behind. It was these schools that kept listening to feedback and making changes until they got it right.
Some of the most inspiring stories of innovation this past year came from parents. Parents found new ways to advocate. Parents had a front seat to what was going on with their children, which for many, led to increased communication between home and school. Parents used technology to share what they were seeing and to increase and improve communication. When I hear these stories, I think about the leadership skills that parents employed this past year to make this possible. It’s incredible to think about.
Educators and parents shared stories of how students, during COVID, were becoming stronger self-advocates, becoming more self-determined - essentially being a leader in their own educational planning.
For me as a parent, I really had to dig deep this past year to solve some complex challenges. What I was doing at the beginning of the pandemic felt chaotic, stressful, and disjointed - and it wasn’t working. I knew I needed a new approach so I shifted my thinking. I hadn’t given it much thought until recently, but I was using many of the strategies I learned in my past coursework in servant leadership, a commitment to serving the needs of others.
It’s interesting to think about how we could use characteristics of servant leadership to help us solve some complex challenges that we continue to face in special education. A hope of mine is that we do not go back to the way special education was in the past. Instead, we learn from this last year and build a more inclusive society.
For those who aren’t familiar with the characteristics of servant leadership, Spears in 2010, following up the work of Greenleaf (1977/2002), published a seminal article outlining these characteristics: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.
A few servant leadership characteristics stand out to me more than others based upon my work in special education during COVID:
Listening - In my work looking at special education during COVID, listening was key. The school leaders that included special educators and parents in planning were more prepared for fall in regard to parent training, early communications about special education, and more.
Empathy - This one I could relate to mostly at the beginning of the school year. In the fall, accessibility and accommodations were a big challenge. At first, I got frustrated because Dalton was struggling to keep up. But, once I stepped back and tried to empathize with what our IEP team and the teachers were trying to do, it was easier to work together to problem solve. Dalton also told me that empathy was a bright spot for him, especially last spring. He shared with me that he appreciated when his IEP team and teachers checked on his well being, and not just on academics.
Self-awareness - When the pandemic hit, families were worried about health and basic needs. For me, self-awareness and self care got lost in all of this. There was so much uncertainty and concern about things outside of my control. It wasn’t until mid-fall that I started to be aware of my family’s needs and to adjust priorities to something more manageable. Part of being a servant leader is helping others to be self-aware and be aware of others needs. If we don’t focus on this, it can lead to burn out, something that many of us experienced at the end of the school year.
Although the pandemic panic is largely behind us, we have some complex special education-related challenges ahead. To address these, we need to focus on three other servant leader characteristics: conceptualization, foresight, and community building.
Conceptualization - School leaders must find a balance of focus between day-to-day and strategic vision for the future. Most of the challenges in special education were not new - COVID just shed a different light on them. Are there students that were more engaged this past year? Let’s find out why. Are there students and families that weren’t engaged this year? How can we re-engage these students and their families?
Foresight - Developing plans for the future of special education is going to take foresight of all involved - at every level. To have foresight requires us to take a hard look at the past and present to help us develop strategies for the future. As parents, educators, IEP teams, and school leaders, we all can have foresight into what our futures look like next year and beyond. What do we want to carry forward to the future and what should we leave behind?
Community Building - Perhaps the most important is building community. Too many of us missed out on that face to face connection this past year. Even those that could be in person, had to social distance, and school events were cancelled or looked very different.
I hope that one thing we learned through all of this is how important community is. We can’t go at this alone - it takes a village. We must work collaboratively to develop new plans, to continue to grow as leaders in our fields, and connect with others in meaningful and satisfying ways.
As Greenleaf 1977/(2002) said,
“All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group. (p. 53)
We all have an important role to play in the future of special education - to make it so that no one is left behind and it’s more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Lanya (Lane) McKittrick is the Chair of the Board of the Usher Syndrome Coalition, founder of the Hear See Hope Foundation, and deafblind education researcher and founder of Lane of Inquiry. Lane received her PhD in Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research, advocacy and family support work are rooted in her personal experience as a mom to four sons, including two who have Usher Syndrome, the leading genetic cause of deafblindness.