What It Takes to Be a Special Education Coach

Collaboration Montage

Thinking about expanding your instructional coaching practice into special education, or new to the role? Heather Noncek, special education IC in Illinois, dives into the special considerations, focus, goals, and daily life of this specialty role.


few years ago, my school district sparked my interest when they added instructional coaches to our roster. A year later, when they added special education instructional coaches, I knew this was something I had to pursue. As something brand new to our school district I often had to respond to questions about the role fairly frequently: "Can you explain your role to me again?" and "How is your role different than our building's instructional coach?"

Below I'll dive into the answers to these questions and how my position is both similar, yet different, to a standard instructional coaching role.

Just What Is a Special Education Coach?

I often find it's easiest to first explain how similar a special education coach is to a more general IC. We both strive to establish trusting and collaborative partnerships with teachers. We both leverage various forms of professional development collaborative conversations, and coaching cycles. Most importantly, we primarily work in the classroom with all educators to focus on improved student outcomes.

Focus and Goals

The overarching focus of a special education coach, however, is where the position may differ from a standard instructional coach. For example, in my current role I have two established goals beyond my instructional coaching peers:

  1. Increase the instructional capacity of our special education teachers.
  2. Increase the instructional capacity for classroom teachers to allow special education students increased access to learning in the general education setting.

Given these additional goals, I tend to look for PD that will support these initiatives. Consequently, much of my reading, podcast listening, and conference attendance tends to provide learning opportunities that support my goals above.

The Daily Work

Another difference I've noticed is that teachers often seek me out to discuss a specific student with complex learning needs or a small group of students who have difficulty achieving established learning outcomes.

My initial work with teachers usually begins from conversations about students who are struggling to meet learning targets, rather than the desire to introduce instructional practices (e.g., workshop models or guided math). This results in frequent requests to observe classrooms and provide feedback. I tend to model lessons so the teacher can observe his or her class, followed by a debrief where we plan the next steps. It's during our debrief that we explore instructional practices to create a targeted focus of why a student is included in different learning opportunities and what supports can be introduced to ensure student success!


Beyond my work with individual teachers, I spend a lot of my time collaborating with teams and across buildings. Although my coaching niche is special education, the benefits I receive from working with my peers is unmatched.

Working With Teams

My views on collaboration have absolutely shifted since I started working in teams. While I've always recognized that collaboration among teachers has a significant role in student learning, I now understand just how critical collaboration is as a component to support students—especially our most complex learners.

Our collaborative practices open up space for all teachers to learn from one another and increase their instructional capacity. While this is a common practice for instructional coaches in general, the makeup of our teams may differ. When we set goals, we look at the whole student to explore inclusive practices. For example, if they have sensory, language, or emotional/behavior needs, we want to be sure that our goals include collaboration with all the teachers who work with that child. Through our work in teams, everyone has ownership of the goals we establish and we can collaboratively adjust instructional practices that best support the student!

Working Across Multiple Buildings

After being on the job for over a year, I've found that almost every special education instructional coach supports multiple buildings. Being spread across multiple buildings can pose a significant challenge as it impacts our ability to support certain projects on a consistent basis. One way I combat this is to collaborate with my peers and building leadership as much as possible as communication is critical. I also look to join building-wide PD whenever possible to continuously connect with teachers who I may not see on a daily basis.

Final Note

The work of a special education instructional coach is grounded in the same practice as an instructional coach. While there are additional layers upon which we engage with our work, overall it's similar to the way an instructional coach at the building level would use their school's improvement plan to guide their work for the year. We look to collaborate with all teachers in supporting some of our most complex learners.

About our Guest Blogger

Heather Noncek is a special education instructional coach at the elementary level and has been in education for over 13 years. She began her career in special education as a resource teacher supporting students in kindergarten through sixth grade. During her educational career, she got her Master's in Literacy Education and even received an EL endorsement.

Recently, Heather decided to take on a new adventure that supports students receiving special services through the instructional coaching model. She works with teachers one-on-one and in small groups to collaborate and plan for inclusion, provide professional development, and to analyze data to plan for instruction.

Follow Heather on Twitter @HNoncek!

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