Every special education administrator’s back-to-school wish list includes starting the school year fully staffed. There are dreams of a department full of smiling faces excitedly greeting students on the first day. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. All is right with the world.
(Record scratch) That’s not what we’re talking about today.
Staffing challenges are an unfortunate reality for many districts this time of year. Despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes the first day of school comes, and critical vacancies remain. It’s a bummer, but all is not lost. Student success rides on what you do next.
While the “squeeze-your-eyes-shut-punch-the-gas-hope-nothing-awful-happens” approach is a popular option, we can all agree that it is not what is best for kids or the staff you do have. So open your eyes, pump the brakes, and take your fate in your own hands. Watch the video below and read on for 6 proactive ideas for tackling the challenges head-on.
1. Prioritize Compliance Tasks
Staffing woes are not a good reason to fall out of compliance (Pro Tip: there actually are no good reasons for falling out of compliance). Use the staff and resources that you have on hand to look at what critical timelines are coming up and figure out how to meet them. This might mean shifting other staff temporarily or even doing the paperwork yourself. You can free up staff time to focus on compliance tasks by taking the time to . . .
2. Think Creatively About Roles and Responsibilities
When you’re down an SLP or school psych, you need to have those that you do have working at the top of their licenses. This means that they should be spending all of their time doing things that only they can do. In other words, if there is something on their workload that a non-licensed person can do, give that task to the non-licensed person. Non-essential and non-time-critical duties — recess, Medicaid, meetings — can also be taken off of their plates so that they’re free to focus on compliance and thinking of ways to . . .
3. Shift the Service Model
Staffing challenges can be a great catalyst for looking critically at the service model that specialists are using and making some changes. Check out this comprehensive write-up from the American Speech Language Hearing Association for a host of information about evidence-based best practices in the schools. Consider seeing students in larger groups with non-certified staff to support, shifting some students to consult services, co-teaching, and other non-pull-out models. This will be easiest if you first take the time to . . .
4. Define and Communicate District Priorities
Decide what is most important to your district, let your people know, and let everything else go. Clearly defining what your district believes in gives everyone a touchstone by which to prioritize tasks. Is 100% timeline compliance a priority? Should all service minutes be met for September? Great. Tell everyone and empower staff at every level to make decisions that support that. Let your direct report staff know that you have their back should any issues come up (like grumpy principals, for example). If this feels difficult . . .
5. Look to Your Peers for Models of Success
You are not alone, nor are your issues unique. Every district has its own particular quirks, but staffing challenges are universal. Reach out to connect and collaborate with neighboring or similar districts for ideas, inspiration, and partnerships. They might be interested in sharing staff (can you combine your .4 with their .6?), have opinions about service delivery or compliance tips, or they might share their experiences with deciding to . . .
6. Bring in short-term help
Lots of shifting happens during the first several weeks of school, and sometimes all you need is a little help while the dust settles. Bringing in someone who can, for example, do all of the evaluations due in the next 3 months can be a lifesaver and keep your district out of some dangerously hot water. Maybe you have hired someone (yay!), but they can’t start until November (ugh). A short-term specialist can get the caseload and schedule set up, see students, hold urgent meetings, and generally keep the seat warm until your permanent staff arrives. We have specialized SLPs and school psychs who are experts in covering short-term emergency needs, and we love the opportunity to help problem solve. Contact us if you’d like to chat about options and see our staff resumes.
Finally, remember that this too shall pass. Sometimes being proactive means taking the time for a few deep breaths, a good laugh with colleagues, or some time in the hallways connecting with the great kids in your buildings. There are not many bad days that half an hour in a kindergarten classroom can’t improve.