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This document has been archived because some of the information it contains may be out of date. (Effective June 2009)

Special Educators as Teacher Leaders in Inclusive Schools

Notions of leadership have evolved over centuries from a focus on individual “great men” considered born for leadership to a recognition that leadership is shared by many individuals throughout all levels of an organizational or community context. In education, recent research suggests that teachers are the cornerstone of any initiative that improves teaching and learning. They are largely responsible for creating the conditions that result in high levels of student learning. In effect, they function as leaders in the continuous process of educational improvement. Nowhere is this more evident than with special education teachers in inclusive education programs.

High quality inclusive education programs cannot exist without special educators who serve as teacher leaders. These teachers not only demonstrate excellence in instruction, they build bridges to connect students with disabilities to the broader education community and its learning and social resources. They understand that if as teachers they are isolated or marginalized in a school, so too will be their students. Stated differently, if the adults are separate, the kids will be separate. To be effective, special educators serve as advocates, connectors, and collaborators.

By observing and interviewing special educators identified as effective in inclusive settings across numerous schools and districts, we have identified four primary roles and related responsibilities that offer insight about the complex nature of special educators’ leadership practice:

1) Developing Individual Student Programs. Related responsibilities:

2) Providing Instruction to Students. Related responsibilities:

3) Coordinating Program Implementation Across Many Students. Related responsibilities:

4) Directing the Work of Paraprofessionals. Related responsibilities:

To carry out these many and varied roles and responsibilities, special educators work as informal leaders across many levels in a school: student, collegial, and organizational. In doing so, they harness and direct resources toward developing and implementing quality individualized educational programs. The nature of this work could be described metaphorically as air traffic controller; they must simultaneously keep the big picture in view and address the smallest of navigational or implementation details. They must also continuously coordinate and communicate with the many others involved in providing services to students with special education needs.

Recognizing, validating, and supporting the informal leadership work of special education teachers could go a long way in improving the quality of educational services for students with disabilities and other students as well. The call for such support, however, falls not only to educational administrators but on teachers themselves. Most teachers balk at the idea of being considered a leader, in part because of strong egalitarian norms in schools that result in leading as a teacher being viewed as “out of line” by peers. It is in an evolving context of leadership shared among many members of a school community, therefore, that the potential of teacher leadership to significantly improve educational practice has a hope of being realized.

Jennifer York-Barr is Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Administration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/625-6387 or Gail Ghere is a Project Coordinator and Jennifer Sommerness is a Research Assistant at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. They may be reached at 612/626-0890.


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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