How to Become a Director of Special Education

The role of Director of Special Education is responsible for shaping the educational experience of students with special needs. This is a key leadership role in a school’s organizational structure which oversees the administration of special education programs, working cross-functionally with both staff and stakeholders to meet the educational objectives for successful student outcomes.

In this article, we will cover everything an aspiring director needs to know to chart their own path to a leadership role, detailing the day-to-day responsibilities of a director, the qualifications and qualities required for the role, and how to gain practical experience and know-how in order to be considered eligible and to be prepared to take on the high demands and pressures of Director.

Dr. Heidi M. Lambert, Director of Special Populations at RMA Public Schools

With seven years of professional experience as a special education director, Dr. Heidi Lambert is ideally positioned to offer her perspective on the demands of the role and share valuable insights into the journey of becoming a director of special education, progressing through roles with increasing levels of responsibility within special education and seizing opportunities for further study along the way.

Starting out as a middle school Math teacher, Dr. Lambert gained her Master’s in Special Education where she qualified to work as an educational diagnostician. After several years working as an educational diagnostician at a special education school, she was promoted to her first official leadership role as Assistant Principal. These were followed by Senior Manager and Area Director roles in an independent school district (ISD), during which she completed a PhD in Leadership.

Dr. Lambert’s career path to her current leadership role as Director of Special Populations at RMA Public Schools is one of many different pathways to directorship. What stands out, however, is her commitment to continuous learning and career progression, as well as a willingness to grow into a responsible leader who has a great impact on the lives of students and educators.

Director of Special Education: Qualifications

Embarking on a career as a director of special education requires a solid educational foundation, coupled with specialized training and additional qualification to navigate the complexities of this role. Below is an outline of the academic prerequisites and certifications which employers are looking for when hiring for the director’s position.

  • Bachelor’s degree in Education, Special Education, Psychology or a related field, providing a comprehensive understanding of educational theories, teaching methods, and child psychology.
  • Master’s degree in Education, specializing in special education, educational leadership, or administration, building on the knowledge and skills acquired in the Bachelor’s degree
  • Teaching certification demonstrating a professional’s competency in teaching. Certification is usually part of an education degree program, but they might need to be taken separately for those who have a degree in another field or who are changing careers.
  • Аdministrative license or certification, as required by the state. This could be an administrative credential that qualifies an individual to work in supervisory positions within schools or a district in that state.

When it comes to further education requirements, Dr. Lambert believes there is some flexibility: “A PhD in Education Leadership will give you a good overview of the research regarding leadership and team management, including how to recruit people, why people are unhappy at work, and so on. It certainly helps to have one, but it’s not compulsory.”

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Director of Special Education: Job responsibilities

A Director of Special Education ensures that students with disabilities in their school receive the educational services and supports they need to thrive. Their responsibilities are multifaceted and require a broad skill set, including leadership, communication, and a deep understanding of special education law and best practices.

Administrative and strategic leadership

While a director won’t be involved with the day-to-day of the administrative work, they are responsible for overseeing the administrative processes which govern a special education institution, such as analyzing data, managing budgets, and implementing education programs. This includes:

  • Program implementation and review: Develop and implement special education programs and services, ensuring they adequately meet the needs of students with disabilities. They are also tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of the program by performing reviews and data analysis, identifying areas for improvement and making decisions based on what they find.
  • Compliance: The school or district’s special education programs must comply with federal, state, and local regulations and laws. This includes ensuring that IEP meetings and evaluations are completed on time, that school facilities are accessible and policies and procedures are kept up-to-date, and that state and federal reporting is done accurately.
  • Budget management: The budget for special education programs needs to be managed well to guarantee that resources for special education are allocated effectively. “I make sure everyone knows the needs of our department at our executive meetings,” says Dr. Lambert. “I keep in constant contact with the Chief Financial Officer, where I raise matters concerning student count and spend amount, among other things.”

Collaboration and communication

Directors work cross-functionally: they rely on and support many different teams to champion the school or district’s goals. They are also engaged in a lot of public-facing activity, keeping an open line of communication with parents/caregivers and other stakeholders in a child’s education. This includes:

  • Staff support and development: Hire, train, and supervise special education teachers and staff, ensuring they are well-equipped to meet students’ needs by providing opportunities for personal and professional development.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Work closely with teachers, parents, school administrators, and external agencies to create and maintain a supportive educational environment for students with disabilities. Dr. Lambert has a dedicated Transition Specialist who plans transition parent meetings at all nine of their campuses. “Thanks to them, parents know we exist and that there is support for their children”’. She also works closely with the marketing director of RMA to make sure that there are parent resources on the website and in the newsletter.
  • Advocacy: Serve as an advocate for students with disabilities, ensuring their needs are met in the educational system and beyond and removing barriers to success. Directors leverage their expertise and authority, pushing for the implementation of inclusive policies, and securing necessary resources and supports.

See how Ori Learning can complete your special education curriculum.

Director of Special Education: Practical experience

Developing leadership skills in educational settings

The director role is one of the highest leadership roles in the education hierarchy, but it is not the only role where an educator can demonstrate leadership skills. Certain roles which are not formally designated as leadership roles will come with some leadership responsibilities.

Heidi gives the example of educational diagnosticians, who serve as consultants to teachers and provide insights and strategies for accommodating students with diverse learning needs. Meanwhile, instructional coordinators provide guidance and training to teachers on teaching strategies and interventions for students with disabilities, and are another great example of a role for gaining experience in a position of authority.

Networking for growth

Engaging with professionals outside of their school who are working in the same field helps aspiring directors to gain access to specialized knowledge, connects them with a vast network of professionals, and opens doors to new opportunities. Attending conferences focused on special education or joining professional groups dedicated to special education, such as the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET), leads to serendipitous encounters where information and resources are shared, creating possibilities for future collaboration. Over time and with consistency, the benefits of these professional connections can multiply.

The power of mentorship in shaping leaders

Every director has at some point in their career been helped by someone who did it before them. Leaders are often able to spot the potential for leadership in others and nurture those qualities in them before they know how to do it themselves, as was the case with Dr. Lambert: “While I was not able to see it at the time, my boss saw in me the ability to not get swayed easily in sticky situations: I could stay cool when there was conflict, including when dealing with angry parents”. We can also be proactive in seeking out mentorship from professionals who we admire and who have already successfully walked the path to becoming a director.

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Elevate Your Team’s Approach to IEP Meetings

Our Transition Planning Rubric is designed to support district leaders and educators in guiding their teams towards excellence in transition planning.

It provides comprehensive criteria that cover the breadth of transition planning, from gauging student engagement to evaluating post-secondary goals and services.

Expand your team’s capabilities and improve the success of IEP meetings.

Elevate Your Team’s Approach to IEP Meetings

Our Transition Planning Rubric is designed to support district leaders and educators in guiding their teams towards excellence in transition planning.

It provides comprehensive criteria that cover the breadth of transition planning, from gauging student engagement to evaluating post-secondary goals and services.

Why Use This Rubric?

  • Tailored Feedback: Utilize a structured scoring system to evaluate and enhance individual transition plans.
  • Fillable Format: Conveniently fill out the rubric digitally or print it for hands-on collaboration.
  • Action-Oriented Guidance: Benefit from a clearly defined path towards creating robust and legally compliant IEPs.

Expand your team’s capabilities and improve the success of IEP meetings. Simply fill out the form and we’ll send you a copy of your fillable & printable transition planning rubric via email.

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Director of Special Education: Leadership qualities and strategies

In addition to learning the theory and acquiring the technical skills in a variety of different roles in special education, there are particular qualities that a leader learns along the way which make them fit for the role of Director.

Building long-lasting professional relationships is at the heart of what makes a successful director, but they also need to navigate the issues that inevitably arise and apply creative solutions to them, some of which affect the sector more widely, such as staff shortages.

Dr. Lambert shares what she has learned about how to approach people and how to handle some of the complex issues in special education from her own experience as a director.

Relationship building and team development

  • Hiring up: Matching the right person with the right role takes considerable experience and acumen, whilst also being able to know and account for personal biases and put ego to one side. “I always hire up,” says Dr. Lambert. “I want someone that is smarter than me and has experience and expertise in areas where I don’t have it and who can complement mine.”
  • Being present: “Throughout the year I make sure the people I work with see me and my leadership team, and I make sure they see me often—at least once a week.” She stresses that these group meetings are not for discussing regulatory or compliance matters, but rather to do a pulse check and see how team morale is.
  • Fostering transparency: Dr. Lambert strongly believes in making space for voicing any issues or concerns her staff have: “I want staff to be able to tell me when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed so that I can find ways to support them.” This level of transparency makes it possible to address challenges together, and it contributes to a supportive work culture.
  • Praising often: It’s good practice to celebrate accomplishments publicly and handle sensitive issues discreetly: “I take the chance to praise others as a group, and if we have to have a difficult conversation, I do that one-on-one via email”. This separation of approaches based on the nature of the case maintains the morale of the group high while preserving the dignity of the individual.

Creative problem-solving and crisis management

In their role as decision-maker, directors are faced with important challenges and dilemmas which they are often forced to resolve by employing innovative thinking and strategic planning. Staff shortages is one of the main issues she has today. “My greatest challenge is to try to figure out how to keep the people that I have,” Dr. Lambert is quick to point out. “I am constantly looking for things that will put us over and beyond what the neighboring school district is offering.”

Staffing is a main pillar of education. If a school is understaffed, it has a direct impact not only on instruction, but also on compliance. In these cases, Dr. Lambert has to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions (“Sometimes I have to step into the role of art facilitator”), underscoring the importance of flexibility and resilience.

Another instance concerns the need to address gaps in staffing. “When I started my role as director, we didn’t have anything in place to help students with transition beyond IEP meetings. I had an open position for another role which I repurposed for the gap, namely that we didn’t have someone dedicated to facilitating the transition process. I kept the same budget, but rewrote the job title and description for a transition specialist, and we were able to find someone who was passionate for the role.”

More on becoming Director of Special Education

Candidates need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Education or Special Education. Additionally, they will need to apply for teaching certification and an administrative license or certification, as required by the state.

Key responsibilities include administrative and strategic leadership, such as developing and implementing special education programs, ensuring compliance with laws, managing departmental budgets, and collaborating with key stakeholders.

Attending conferences or joining professional groups dedicated to special education where you can network with other professionals in the field can provide access to specialized knowledge and new opportunities, including finding an experienced mentor.

Becoming Director of Special Education: Next steps

Becoming a Director of Special Education is both challenging and immensely rewarding. It demands a unique blend of educational expertise, leadership skills, and a deep commitment to the well-being and success of students with special needs.

As illustrated by Dr. Lambert’s career, this path is not linear but instead a series of deliberate steps. Aspiring directors must cultivate a solid foundation in special education, leadership, and administration, while also embracing continuous learning and networking opportunities. Her insights further underscore the importance of resilience, creativity in problem-solving, and the ability to foster strong, supportive relationships with staff and stakeholders.

Ultimately, this role is about making a meaningful difference in the lives of students with disabilities: it offers the opportunity to advocate for inclusive policies, champion the needs of students, and lead teams in the creation of nurturing, effective educational environments.

With Ori Learning, directors of special education can enjoy the peace of mind of having access to an easy-to-implement, comprehensive Transition Program which comes with tools out of the box for reporting on progress and demonstrating compliance. Find out how our curriculum can help you meet IEP goals safely and consistently.

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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.