Accepting Personal Responsibility and Being a Good Teacher-Leader

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

USC Rossier Master of Arts in Teaching Online — No GRE
The Master of Arts in Teaching online (MAT online) from the USC Rossier School of Education prepares aspiring teachers for diverse and high-needs educational settings and can be completed in 12 months.

  • GRE scores not required
  • Prepare for teaching credential

University of Dayton School of Education
The University of Dayton’s top-ranked online MSE in Educational Leadership program prepares students to become effective leaders in grades pre-k to 12. No GRE scores are required to apply.

Fordham University
Earn Your Master's in Teaching Online from Fordham University’s online Master of Science in Teaching program prepares students for NY state initial teaching licensure in grades 1 to 6. Complete in two years—bachelor’s degree required to apply.

I have, on more than one occasion, been told I am bossy. It is a term assigned to me which has really never bothered me.

I've also been called four-eyes, ugly, chicken legs, fatso, a b****, mean, stupid and loads of others.

Over time, one either begins to believe the words they hear. Or, as in my case, they realize certain truths: People can be petty, mean. Some people are just plain dishonest.

On the flip side, I have been called kind, creative, smart, funny, compassionate, loving, a life-saver, and loads of others.

I prefer to believe the Flip Side.

Over time, one begins to believe the words they hear. Or, as in my case, they realize certain truths: people are just pleasant, grateful, and gracious. Some people are just downright delightful.

Are they telling us what we WANT to hear? Are they telling us the truth?

Dubious Beginnings May Mean a Successful Career

I love organization. Knowing where things are and being able to go grab something without having to stop and think makes my heart happy. Laundry baskets full of clean clothes not put away, pots left on the stove, unwashed countertops, clutter in the pantry, chaos in the closet…it all makes my flesh crawl.

Even as a kid on the playground during my elementary-aged years, I could not stand disorganization. When people wanted to play Dodge Ball, I was coordinating team selections covertly, during class, before we ever got on to the playground. This made sense: get them organized during class time so there is more actual playing time. Duh. Maximizing recess time is the goal of a majority of kids, especially when there's something fun and engaging (for most kids) happening once the school's back doors fling open and kids rush out. Besides, I didn't understand Math most of the time, anyway.

Assuming the role of teacher too far before my time, observing the playground could, and would, send me to the brink of a pre-teen meltdown as well. When kids were blatantly misbehaving, I wasn't going to run and tattle on them; instead, I reminded them of the rules and why they needed to be followed.

Turns out, most of my now- 50-something peers didn't care.

We all knew the rules. It was the 70's. People indeed knew the rules…but they didn't always follow them. It was my self-appointed mission, as a kid of eight-to-ten years old, to ensure everyone followed them.

Hilarious. Like that worked out very well!

My role as self-appointed Playground Patrol came to a natural conclusion as it became clear that if you can't beat ‘em, you may as well join ‘em. While this did not always rest well with my soul or psyche, I did my part to not make the teachers' days any longer than they already were. I was taught to follow the rules, and for the most part, I did.

Fast-forward from 1970-something to 2000-something. The plate on my door said State and Federal Funding Coordinator. Emblazoned just above those words was my name.

I had become a professional Rule Follower and Rule Implementer.

Now I could finally say, "You betcha, knowing the rules matters!"

Full circle, baby!

What's Your Handle, Good Buddy?

Being called bossy was never really that big of a deal to me. I figured if I was bossy, then others needed to do as I said. But after many failed attempts at elementary school classroom bossy-pants-style leadership, I learned a truth: one must not coerce. One must convince.

There you go. There's your nugget for today.

People need to understand WHY the rules are the rules.

As a special education teacher, I am responsible for the education of children with special needs. For some students, the needs are cognitive. For others, they are physical.

Every student has a different learning plan. Multiply the number of learning plans times the number of subjects times the number of students, well, there's just not enough of me to do it all. Factor in formal and informal assessments, paperwork, planning, Teaching, and all the other components to our day, well, some help is needed.

Enter the paraprofessionals and aids.

In Steps the Angels

Call them what you want, I see them as winged angels. These sweet gypsies of the hallways glide in and out of our classrooms, moving between accepting directions from the classroom teacher, supporting students with personal care needs, and overseeing the room while I attend meetings. They assist in all ways possible to make the day great for our students.

In my classroom, these people are valued deeply. They make the day flow more easily. They are four extra hands to help me achieve the goals set forth in the kids' IEP's.

They are fun. The kids love and respect them…and so do I. Most especially, they are wonderful at their jobs.

My parapro and aid came to me pre-assigned by district leadership. My self-contained classroom was created later in the year when the numbers for the original self-contained classroom were nudging the federally mandated maximum. Anticipating growth in the district's Special Education Department, The Powers That Be had the foresight to expand to two classrooms. On the special day when I met my new class, I also met my new co-workers.

I was nervous. They were skeptical. Then, like Kismet, we clicked.


As our days quickly became a smooth-running routine, it was easy to see that we each were equipped with the skills needed to make the days alive and help the kids to thrive. Where one of us was not as strong, the other radiated confidence and know-how. Some kids gravitated more to one of the adults over another-and we didn't mind. Kids need to find security at school. Whichever of us made a child feel comfortable and happy, the others were pleased and prepared to support in any way.

With this free-flowing lovefest in our classroom, the ladies respected my position as the leader.

That was me. Bossy Pants.

See? It's not always a bad thing.

How do I know that? They told me so because we're open and honest with each other, even when it might hurt a bit.

Everyone Just Needs to Play Fair!

Before arriving in the newly-created classroom and in this district, the gig as State and Federal Funding Coordinator gave way to being a member of building administration.

Holding staff responsible for following the rules was not difficult; the assembled team of teachers and support staff were phenomenal and hard-working people, dedicated to the children of our 750-student building. They were also very committed to their professional learning community.

Late nights planning instruction around data, group text messages discussing strategies and interventions, early mornings for before-school meetings to create or locate materials to meet the needs of learners… THIS is what Teaching AND Learning is all about.

When team members had differences of opinions, they were addressed. Because people are people, occasionally feelings got hurt. But there was always a firm understanding that everyone had one primary focus: the students.

My leadership style had been polished over the years, refined to a place where I knew I was responsible for what others did. With that in mind, it seemed logical to surround myself with those who were "experts" in a specific area. Some were fantastic at disaggregating data. Some were amazing at looking at the results to create a student-focused plan for their individual students. Some were great with behavior. Everyone had a polished gem to add to our students' crowns of success.

We worked together. Everyone's input mattered. Everyone was a stakeholder-parents, students, teachers and staff, community members.

Our ship was sailing on smooth waters…and one day, the winds of change moved me from one place to another.

The Grass Is Always Greener

No, it's not. It's just a different varietal.

When a relocation had to occur, I had to make decisions about where to apply for work.

As the person not from the area, knowing where things were happy was more a matter of, "Let's see how it goes."

But this we know: there are districts which are perceived to be wonderful. They enjoy a great reputation. Their test scores are solid. Their staff appears to be happy. Their published pay scale is higher than their area's average. Their staff arrives at the contracted time. They depart at the contracted time's end. Very few emails fly over the weekend.

It's plausible BLISS.

You settle in for a great year in your new classroom. You smile, you thank people for their support, guidance, help-and you MEAN it. You invite their input and feedback. You share you have an area of strength that you'd love to share, rendering you a potential asset to the team.

You share you have an area for which you need some support, rendering yourself vulnerable and in need of some support from your team.

You hope to be the Yin to the Yang of your team.


But then it happens. It seems like it always-okay, OFTEN-happens… the gossip, conflicts, and rumor-generation. The frustration.

No drama.

The pursuit of that simple concept seems to be a true-blue snipe hunt. A unicorn sighting.

WHAT IS MY POINT in providing all this verbiage so far?

As special education teachers, you will more than likely have a paraprofessional and/or aid in your room.

You are their leader for all matters occurring inside your four walls.

You have to create the atmosphere and environment in which you want to work.

Drama has no place in the adult plane of the school setting. There is simply too much work to be done every day.

Here is my word to you-as someone who has been in the mix for quite some time-if you don't set the tone and the pace for your setting, keeping focused and on-task all day, boredom will slip in.

The friend of drama is gossip. It is my experience that gossip is rooted in boredom. As the teacher, keep your classroom team focused and moving. In doing so, drama and gossip don't have time to take root.

I Don't Want To Adult Today

You're in charge, but remember, it is a team effort. It is your responsibility to lay out the day for your team through well-written lesson plans. You create their routine, you are to make sure they have all the tools and training to do what you're asking them to do. You are to make sure they have an understanding of all the expectations.

You are to be sure your team understands their specific role.

I can hear some folks right now-they're saying, "But I don't want to be anyone's boss. I just want to teach."

Surprise!! You're in charge.


Fine. I'll Deal. But What Do They Need To Know?

Paraprofessionals have expected guidelines and directives imposed by most states. One state offers a clear and concise list of specifications of duties which include some of the following:

  • Works with students to reinforce learning
  • Assists the teacher to create strategies
  • Manage materials
  • Assists with large group activities, like drill work and story telling
  • Reads to students and listens to students read
  • Updates bulletin board and displays student work
  • Scores and records student achievement and diagnostic tests
  • Assists with classroom management, but should never administer corporal punishment

Another district provides concise examples of the expectations for paraprofessionals, summarized as follows:

  • The teacher is your supervisor
  • Have positive communication with your teacher
  • For grievances, follow district procedures
  • Discuss concerns about the teacher or their practice directly with the teacher at the right time in the right place
  • Follow consistent behavior management routines/policies as set by the district
  • Be a positive representation of the school
  • Know policies, etc.
  • Be a positive representation of the school
  • Do only that for which you are trained or qualified
  • Do not discuss students with anyone except the teacher
  • Responsibility for the classroom is ultimately that of the classroom teacher
  • Do your part to be sure student needs/best interests are being met
  • Discuss a child's progress ONLY with the teacher
  • Be mindful of where your conversations are being held
  • Do not engage in discrimination of students' race, creed, etc.
  • Be a positive example

A parent needs to know their child's team of special education providers is in synchrony to best support their child. In order to be great at what you do, you have to tune out the peripheral activities which occur in every school setting. I promise you, there will be so much going on around your hallways and in your building that you will need to learn to tune it all out. Some call it negative energy. Some call it bad behavior. No matter, just don't engage.

My hope for fledgling special education teachers, as well as general education teachers, is that you seek FIRST to Educate. Doing so with your classroom team of paraprofessionals and aids in step with you will make the students' school year be wonderful.

But the very MINUTE you allow the "junk" created by others to get inside your head…? That is the very minute you lose sight of what is most important. You lose sight of WHY you chose this great profession. You lose sight of educating children.

Your purpose is no longer at the forefront; it takes a second place to the intrinsic need many people have to know what is being said about them or what is rumored to be said about them.

That crap does not matter. YOUR STUDENTS MATTER.

BE the bossy pants!! Take ownership of your classroom. Control what is intended for you to control; disallow the rest of the stuff to make your days longer or sadder.

Don't allow joy thieves to have control. Build connections with your parapros and aids. Be kind to them. You're in this together.

Reach out to other teachers through social media platforms for ideas, tips, and techniques to make YOUR room brighter, happier, better. Work hard to build your pedagogy. Stay focused.

As The Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Salesonce said, "Bloom where you are planted."

If your district is great, bloom.

If you're hoping for greener pastures one day, bloom.

You are well-trained. You are committed. You are passionate about children. You have been training for this for so many years.

Be courageous.

Be bossy.

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin