(The following blog post was an interview conducted by ISA coach Mayra Rodriguez, who was profiled in this blog post a couple of months ago. Our interviewee, Adrienne McManis, is the director of special services at Lindenwold [NJ] School District, an ISA partner district.)
What motivated you to become an administrator for students with disabilities (SWD)? Can you briefly describe what your job entails?
There are so many aspects of a school district that, in some way, rely on the structue of the Special Services Department (SSD). As a former principal and director for a small pre–K-8 district, I saw this firsthand. Putting interventions and programs in place that support students allows the expertise of our Child Study Team (CST) and support staff to be used for all students. No longer can the SSD be its own entity. My primary motivation is to change this mindset. As a director, I am able to oversee and participate in the development of protocols, interventions, and services that support students districtwide.
Has the pandemic changed the way you provide support to your schools, teachers, school leaders, and parents? If so, in what ways?
At times it seems as though the pandemic has flipped our school community upside down. Providing remote support has been difficult statewide, and it has been crucial to support staff and families so that they are able to support our students while using multiple educational platforms. Videos and computer-based supports have been key resources for both new and veteran staff. When we all went through college to become teachers, I don’t believe we ever thought we would be on Zoom or sitting in front of a Chromebook all day. In my district we created what we call the Support Library, and it’s been a big hit. The library allows both district staff and families to access quick videos and links to use to troubleshoot a problem or to enhance remote learning. I saw early on that one of the biggest barriers was the inability of parents to support students when using technology. Our library allows for virtual support that can be used at any time, not just during school hours.
Is your school district involved in equity work and, if so, what does the work look like at the school and classroom level?
This school year the district committed to training with restorative practices. This is the first year of a multi–year approach. Our current goal is training our administrative team as well as our counseling staff. Restorative practices focus on building, maintaining, and repairing relationships among all members of the school community.
What are some of the challenges facing your teachers at this moment of the school year? How have you helped to address those challenges?
We recently switched back to remote instruction, and I took the winter break to reflect on this shift. We have asked our staff and students to pivot at a moment’s notice, and with each twist and turn, we have made adjustments based on what we learned since the start of the pandemic. In my opinion the biggest challenge has been supporting our teachers as they educate our students on how to be both an in-person student as well as a remote student.
I think the role I have played in supporting the staff is to be a sounding board. Teachers have a personal toolbox of ideas that they use to support their students. When delivering instruction in so many different ways, these toolboxes can empty. As an administrator, it has been an important element of my job to listen to any and all concerns and issues. The next part of my role becomes challenging: How do I help? In my 10 years as a special education teacher, I felt as though I learned so much about different teaching techniques, behavior management styles, and intervention supports. Furthermore, I continue to learn so much more from my own staff. As we brainstorm ideas and come up with new plans, it is my job to ensure all of the resources are available for execution. At times it feels incredibly daunting—but I keep reminding myself that if a kindergarten class with 28 students can pivot from in person instruction on a Friday to remote learning on a Monday, I have the easy job.
What advice would you give to other district administrators as they work toward meeting the needs of their SWD?
Take time to listen and be present. Oftentimes when we meet, we are hearing a complaint or solving a problem. Take time to talk about something positive. In our roles it is very easy to get stuck in the realm of negativity. I am sure we all wonder if we are making a difference. It is important to take a few minutes to stop and share the positives. Get out of the office and see the good that is happening in your district. Take 15 minutes to participate in a read-aloud with a group of emerging first grade readers. Stop by a creative writing class and ask a student to share her most recent work with you. I guarantee you will leave with a smile on your face, energy to tackle your next task, and a small reminder of why you come to work everyday.
There is one silver lining of the pandemic I always like to share. Annual reviews, conferences, and parent meetings are often a struggle for our working families to attend. Being introduced to Zoom and Google has allowed our working families to be an active participant in their children’s education. It was often the case that parents and guardians wanted to participate, but they did not have an avenue to do so. It is exciting when we can meet families face-to-face for the first time. It becomes the true definition of teamwork!