Characteristics of an Effective Special Education Director

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Welch, 2021). This quote from Jack Welch, the former GE chairman and CEO, exemplifies leadership. To be honest, my first couple years of being a special education director felt a lot like treading water. I focused on the urgent rather than the important tasks.
By Trish Geraghty

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Welch, 2021). This quote from Jack Welch, the former GE chairman and CEO, exemplifies leadership. To be honest, my first couple years of being a special education director felt a lot like treading water. I focused on the urgent rather than the important tasks. Former President Eisenhower summarized this dilemma beautifully, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent” (Eisenhower, 1954). It is an easy trap to fall into, managing urgency while losing focus of what is important. Here are some characteristics special education directors should have in order to be effective.


1. Vision focused

As a special education director one must make many decisions that are often not well received. Rely on the department’s vision for decision-making and share the “why” behind decisions. No one likes to hear from the “All powerful Oz” behind the scenes who makes decisions without sharing the thought-process. Align your work to the shared vision for creating a connection to policies and practices. “The vision of leadership permeates the workplace and is manifested in the actions, beliefs, values, and goals of your organization’s leaders. This vision attracts and affects every employee who is engaged in living this set of actions, beliefs, values, and goals (Heathfield, 2020).

Double check that your actions do truly match the shared vision when making decisions and informing practices. Take the time to review the vision with your staff to see if it still represents the core beliefs of the team and inspires your work. Use your vision to facilitate the change you want to see in your school or department. “A school’s vision and the actions resulting from that vision begin with the principal and then becomes the catalyst for change” (Riley, 2015). Keep the vision at the heart of your decisions and share in the decision making to promote sustainable change.


2. Open minded and good listener 

“The only thing more important than knowing what to say, is knowing how to listen” (Ward, 2021). I cannot stress this one enough. The greatest investment you will make as a leader is time with those you supervise. Set aside time to listen to your staff with the intention of understanding, not as a task to complete.  “To a large degree, effective leadership is effective listening.  A study of managers and employees of a large hospital system found that listening explained 40% of the variance in leadership” (Williams, 2021).

Listening gives you the opportunity to form connections but also to see a different perspective. Solicit feedback on current practice, policies, and procedures from those you work with. I’ve had so many moments of clarity when listening to teachers I support. Policies and practices I thought were great ideas quickly dissolved after seeking feedback from teachers and realizing the unintentional consequences. Listening also gives you a broader scope of the impact of change and are able to determine patterns and trends of the effect.

Be open minded to the ideas you hear from your staff. It is easy to become so focused on urgent matters that you miss opportunities to consider new ideas or differing perspectives, or to dismiss ideas because it will derail the work. Pause and reflect and take the time to listen. Not only will it strengthen connections with staff but it will increase the effectiveness of your leadership.


3. Relentless student-centered focus

I think this is one we can all agree upon until it gets too difficult. Vision statements are full of comments like, “all students,” “all means all,” “where every child can succeed,” etc; you get the idea. How do we check our actions to ensure we are upholding these beliefs outlined in our vision statements? For me it’s making sure all students receive what they need, for as long as they need it. This premise comes under attack when confronting the disconnect between what we say we do and our practices. Referring students for special education because educators are not using Universal Design for Learning strategies is an example. “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn” (Estrada, 2018). An effective special education director will stand and support the vision even at the expense of adult convenience.

To support the work outlined in a district’s vision and mission create a Multi Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). “A multi-tiered system of support is a continuum of research-based, system-wide practices of data-based decision making used to meet the academic and behavior needs of all students” (SWIFT, 2021). This framework supports both the students and staff in providing targeted instruction for all students. Implementing MTSS is a school-wide initiative that requires ownership at all levels. MTSS addresses the why behind the work we do while providing applicable resources for instruction academically, behaviorally, and socially-emotionally.


4. Resourceful and creative with funding

It is no secret that education, especially special education, is not funded at the appropriate or promised level. When Congress passed IDEA, they promised to cover 40% of the extra cost of special education. In other words, they would pay for nearly half of the additional cost required to educate students with disabilities (when compared to the cost per student without disabilities). Unfortunately, Congress has never come close to fulfilling that promise. The number of students with disabilities served under IDEA has increased by 25 percent in the past two decades. Yet, the IDEA state grant program was only funded at around $12 billion in 2017. The federal government is only covering 14.6% of the additional cost” (NCLD, 2021).

Doing more with less has become the mantra for educators. But we have been pushed too far in order to appropriately support our students. This is why you need a resourceful special education director. Through braided funding strategies, creative practices, and networking you can as a leader support your teachers and students effectively. Collaborate with other departments in your LEA around braided funding that supports the strategic initiatives of the LEA without pulling from your IDEA budget. Title I, II, and IV are great resources to support teacher development and provide SEL strategies to teachers and students.

Recently additional funding has been provided through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERs). “Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act” (Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, 2021). While these funds are not specific to students with disabilities, these funds can support the strategic plan for an LEA in reaching all students.

An effective special education director not only needs to be creative with funding but also in considering programming and services. Challenge out-dated practices that yield little student benefit and rethink how specially designed instruction is delivered. Many special education services are provided through a pull-out model of removing a student with a disability from their grade-level instruction to provide remediation skills. This practice is ineffective in closing academic achievement gaps and actually perpetuates the learning gap. Conduct an audit of current services and realign programming using proven-effective strategies that lead to academic gains for students with disabilities.


5. Stay current on policies and practices in the field

A great way to ensure you are staying current on all things related to leadership and special education is joining a professional organization like the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE). “The Mission of the Council of Administrators of Special Education is to provide leadership and support to members by shaping policies and practices that impact the quality of education” (CASE, 2020). The plethora of resources available as a member is tremendous and the networking opportunities are plenty.

Professional organizations offer numerous chances to meet other professionals doing the work you love. Being a special education director can be isolating and having the support of your colleagues is invaluable. Joining CASE and CEC was one of the best decisions I made as a special education director. Check out the CASE website for online courses, resources, events, and community forums.


Final Thoughts

An effective special education director is someone that can manage the competing demands of budgeting, staffing, programming, and communicating the vision for the LEA. These skills take time to develop and at the heart of the work is listening. Reach out to your colleagues for support and ideas to improve student outcomes.



C. Riley. Principal leadership: Aligning vision with actions. (2015). https://www.naesp.org/resource/principal-leadership-aligning-vision-with-actions/

Council for Administrators of Special Education. (2020). https://www.casecec.org/

D. Eisenhower. Speech at: Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. (1954).

I. Estrada. Quote. (2018).

S. Heathfield. Leadership Vision You Can’t Be a Real Leader Who People Want to Follow Without Vision. (2020).

Mind Tools. Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle Using Time Effectively, Not Just Efficiently. (2021). https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm#:~:text=Important%20activities%20have%20an%20outcome,with%20achieving%20someone%20else’s%20goals.

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. (2021). https://oese.ed.gov/offices/education-stabilization-fund/elementary-secondary-school-emergency-relief-fund/

National Center for Learning Disabilities. IDEA full funding: Why should Congress invest in special education. (2021). https://ncld.org/news/policy-and-advocacy/idea-full-funding-why-should-congress-invest-in-special-education/

SWIFT. MTSS Guide. (2021). https://guide.swiftschools.org/

Think Strategic. 20 inspirational leadership quotes.  (2021). https://thinkstrategicforschools.com/inspirational-leadership-quotes-school-leaders/

K. Ward.  (2021). Facebook post.

S. Williams. (2021). Effective listening. http://www.wright.edu/~scott.williams/skills/listening.htm

Trish Geraghty
Trish Geraghty, an accomplished educational leader with 20+ years of experience, excels in curriculum development, instructional design, and professional development. Her proven track record includes successful support for schools, districts, educators, and students. Committed to ensuring universal access to high-quality learning, Trish is a visionary advocate for inclusive education. Her innovative approach to curriculum development reflects a keen understanding of evolving standards. Trish's transformative influence extends beyond traditional boundaries, actively contributing to the broader advancement of education. A catalyst for positive change, she inspires excellence in others, shaping the future of education through unwavering commitment and visionary leadership.

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