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Q&A with Special Education Administrator Loretta Cozza

Loretta Cozza is a special education administrator in New York State. She has extensive experience working in middle and high school settings and came out of retirement to continue supporting schools in need of guidance. She is currently serving a combined middle and high school setting in a rural district. In this interview, she talks about some of her lessons learned around supporting students with LD, partnering with families, and mentoring other administrators within the special education setting.

Supporting Middle and High School Students with LD

How did you get involved in special education?

Back in 1979, I started teaching. I was taking courses at my local community college in upstate New York, Dutchess Community College, and took some mental health courses, which I really liked and which led to more psychology courses. One of the course’s field experiences took place in a classroom, and back then, they got you out into classes throughout the region in a variety of different settings. The day they picked the placements, I had slammed my hand in my car door so was assigned the last available placement, which was in inner-city Poughkeepsie in a self-contained special education classroom. It probably wasn’t something I would have picked since, at the time, I was more interested in mental health and counseling.

But I ended up in the special education class and I had a great teacher that I worked with. She had set up a lot of different stations and was really ahead of her time. It was an inclusive classroom where the students were partly self-contained and partly mainstreamed, and she had a wonderful way of grouping them and presenting information to them in ways that were attainable. That field experience hooked me, and I switched to special education. I finished my mental health and psych degree there and then studied special education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, and then I went on to get my Masters in Special Education at Fordham University in the Bronx. And I stayed in special education; I’ve been in it for almost 44 years.

What inspired you to become an administrator later in your career?

I was in the classroom for 19 years and always taught high school. And I had my own children late in life. I think you feel something shift inside of you when you want a change. I was the department chair in my school and had done some things outside the classroom in leadership roles that took me away from my teaching assignments. I ended up getting a different position where I was the department chair and it was a teacher leader position. But I liked it so much that I decided that I really wanted to get my administrator certification. So, I enrolled in the weekend program at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts because with my kids being so young, I could take classes on the weekends, and then have two or three weeks to focus on the reading and writing assignments as well as the research that I needed to do.

And then we went over for about 17 days in the summer and did more of an immersion experience and it was great because I was part of a cohort of about 30 or 35 people. The process really worked for me as a young mother, but also as a seasoned teacher because it gave me some flexibility. Then I became an administrator, which I’ve been doing since 1998.

Can you provide an overview of what it’s like for middle and high school kids who are coming to school with learning disabilities or ADHD?

In terms of ADHD, one thing you might see is that they are better in the morning, especially if they had some adequate sleep at night and a good breakfast. As the day goes on and their interactions become more involved, they might struggle with sustaining that attention and not reacting to the stimulus around them.

In terms of LD, I think it depends on the learning disability, but so many of the disabilities we address are literacy-based, which can make it hard for students to access the work. Our teachers are doing a really good job at looking at the reading levels and trying to present the work in a way that is attainable to students, as well as helping teachers present it in different modalities, and that’s good for all students, because you don’t always know the student you’re going to benefit. In addition, a co-teacher can be a great support to the general education teacher by providing ideas, resources, and strategies. They might say, “Let’s look at what we’re teaching, how can we present this in different ways?” since it’s not always about breaking the information down – sometimes the presentation mode is the key.

What does your school’s literacy support look like for kids with literacy-based disabilities at that older level?

We have two reading teachers. One is dedicated to working with students with special needs on a lot of fundamental skills. We also have a reading teacher who works with students who are not identified as needing special education but who are scoring lower on some reading assessments. We’re lucky to have both of these teachers in our school.

In addition, we have a literacy coach who works with us part-time. We share her with the elementary school, and she comes in and works with individual teachers on the literacy strategies that they’re teaching across the content area. Our mantra is that we’re all teachers of literacy. Our coach’s work across the board has been very helpful for teachers who don’t always think of themselves as reading or literacy teachers.

We’re also working with Questar, which is our BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) partner in Rensselaer County. And then we have content-area specialists in ELA, social studies, math, and science whose work has been on literacy strategies as well and literacy related to assessments.

What are some lessons you have learned about working with students who have learning disabilities?

It can be challenging to help students understand what their needs are and then invest in taking the risk with the adult (many trusted adults) to accept the help. Having students understand the why of that is really important because it’s not enough for us to simply meet their needs. They need to understand what they need — and why.

It’s also important to be sensitive. Just remember that these students really struggle. Sometimes they know the struggle and sometimes they deny the struggle. And many times, that resistance can continue year after year after year, but when you walk in that door every day, it’s a brand-new day. That bell rings, the next class is a brand-new class. Special education has taught me that every hour, every day, every month is new.

We don’t have the luxury of holding a grudge. We can’t hold on to anger. Whatever you can do to support your staff in cultivating that empathy is important. As leaders, we have to be role models and mentors; we’re the cheerleaders. We have to be upbeat, we have to show up every day, and we have to appreciate that.

What are some strengths you see in students with LD or ADHD?

In my experience, I have worked with many students with a variety of learning needs.  I have found students with learning disabilities to have a high degree of perseverance, a willingness to try to learn concepts in different ways and a sense of empathy for others.

Students with attention deficient disorder can present in a variety of ways.  I have found many students with this condition to have a high degree of energy and enthusiasm.  They can be quite creative and often can see things from multiple perspectives.  Some student with ADHD can be impulsive and this gives them the ability to jump right into something without hesitation.  Also, students with this condition can display a high degree of hyper-focus when they are engaged and interested in a task/topic.

What are some of the other considerations for older students with LD?

Many times, older students don’t want to stand out and they don’t want to be different. They’re going through puberty, they’re developing, and they’re scared. For some kids who have felt “special” their whole lives, they just want to be like their peers.

For older students, it’s also important to bridge what their special needs are and how those special needs can affect their getting a diploma and their first steps toward post-high school. I’m a strong proponent of students working with teachers and support staff for multiple years at the high school level. Because the deeper the staff know them, the more they trust you and the more you can start peeling back those layers to help them make sound plans for the future.

At the same time, there’s a benefit to students learning to work with different people because we will no longer be there once they leave high school.

How do you collaborate with teams for older students? 

We have always had teams at the middle level, but this year, we started to have teams at the high school as well, which was a challenge. We created a schedule that allowed the team to meet either every other day or at least periodically throughout the week, during which time they coordinated the work, big projects, unit tests, and the data collection for their students. Another purpose for having teams was to look at how a student may present in one class, which could be quite different from how they present in another class. When we do a case review on a student, the teachers each share what they’re seeing; it can be very eye-opening. For example, the English teacher might see one thing because during a literacy-based course while the music teacher might be seeing something totally different because the class is performative.

Depending on what the students’ needs are and what their interests are, having that collective time to talk about the student’s strengths and weaknesses in each class can be very helpful and very supportive to teachers. The team can also use the time to ask each other questions and brainstorm ways to help the student thrive.

If we’re doing a student survey or if we’re doing another round of data testing, the team also has a chance to discuss those processes and how best to juggle any disruption assessments or testing may cause. Getting everyone on the same page has been very helpful.

In addition, especially post-COVID, educators need support from other educators and the administration. They’re doing yeoman’s work and we need to show them a lot of support, a lot of love, and a lot of understanding. We’re losing educators every single day from this profession and some of that we can’t stop, but some of it we can through intentional structures, supports, and effective communication. I believe that leadership plays an important role in that.

What do family partnerships look like for older students with LD?

At the middle school level, it’s really important to help families understand what their students’ learning needs are, but also what’s the carryover at night. Many times, our kids go home burned out from being in school. School is hard for them. At the middle level — and even at the high school level — it’s hard for them behaviorally, socially, emotionally, and academically. Sometimes, parents take it personally at first. They feel that their children are struggling because they, themselves, struggle. I work in a rural district with high levels of poverty, and it really takes time to help families understand what their students’ needs are and then how they can support the school and how the school can support them. Right now, it’s meeting their basic needs first and then moving on from there.

But there has to be a partnership and that’s how I present it to my staff and to teachers. Sure, I know these partnerships can be challenging, but they are important. For example, I work with a lot of grandparents and they bring their experience of what they had in school to what their grandchild is doing now. I hear so often, “I can’t help them. I don’t understand this. I can make sure that they do it at the table, but I can’t make sure that it’s done right.” There’s a real generational gap we have to keep working on and partnering with family members can help address the struggles not only students face but also their families.

What advice do you give to teachers when the families are either reluctant or hesitant about a special education evaluation?

First, we want to invite the families to the school. I give teachers release time if they need it, and I recommend that the first meeting starts with an individual teacher and not a team, so it’s not as intimidating. And then, if needed, the next thing would be to involve the guidance counselor, a social worker, the school psychologist, or whomever is on the team. And then the third level would be to bring in an administrator.

Social and Emotional Support

What are you seeing in terms of students’ social and emotional health?

Students are struggling and dealing with tough things at home. Many of them are food insecure and many of them need clothing. And often, they don’t have a means for transportation in order to access counseling outside of school, which is challenging. To address this issue, we brought to the school two part-time county counselors for students to meet with. Their caseloads are full. We’re also seeing difficult behavior in seventh and eighth grades. Sixth is a little easier this year because the kids are younger, and that team of teachers really keeps a close rein on them.

In terms of the high school, unfortunately, there is less of a tight rein. I see a lot of vaping — undoubtedly like every other high school across the country. And that has its own host of problems. We see some drug use and some drug sales. And then we see peer interactions that are often negative.

At the high school level, it’s all about the push toward graduation — do they have all the necessary credits and have they developed the necessary study habits and attentional behaviors that they need to sustain the time in class? And do they have the follow-through necessary for the work that’s required outside of class?

What are you seeing in terms of bullying?

We have students that are really acting out, which we address through counseling, teacher meetings, parent meetings, restorative practices, discipline, an afterschool program, and a recovery room, which is like a safe room for students if they feel that they’re going to act out or simply need to calm down. They can ask to go to the safe room where we have a trained staff member available to work with them.

Unfortunately, we also see students being cruel to each other, a lot of which comes from the online impact. This year, we instituted a policy of no phone use … in middle school, they cannot have a phone on their person. Students have to leave their phones in their lockers, and if they’re caught with one, it gets locked in a safe in the main office. This policy has helped a lot with the online bullying that was happening during the day. Some of the high school teachers would like us to implement the no phone policy at the high school level, but we also want to teach our students digital literacy and respect for themselves and others.

What are some mental health services you’re providing?

We’re working with Rensselaer County Mental Health Services for some students who present with suicide ideation that’s repetitive and prevalent. We’re also working with Samaritan Hospital. We are trying to use the resources that we already have. It really takes a concerted effort.

Advice for Special Education Administrators

What is the ideal relationship between the teacher and the administration? What should that look like?

With the teacher and the administrator, there has to be open communication where there’s a trusting relationship, even when they disagree. And especially within the special ed setting, I think it’s really important for administrators to meet teachers within the teacher’s space. Coming to the office can feel intimidating, and I mentor staff on that all the time. Visiting their space — not to interrupt but to reach out — can go a long way. A quick hello speaks volumes and then if scheduling a time to meet more formally is necessary you can do that, too.  

In addition, with new teachers before tenure, they’re often afraid to show what they don’t know, and so putting a system in place where they feel supported by administrators, not just evaluated, is crucial. I’m a resource in this district that’s unique. But the Questar consultants, literacy coach, peers are on their team – these are all non-evaluative relationships. And it’s important to make sure that your new teachers know that.

And I always say to teachers, “I’m not evaluating you. I’m here to help and listen and guide you. Evaluations come during formal observations. We all know that administrators are taking in information all the time in a variety of ways, but it’s not a “got you” to a teacher, it’s to help mentor them.

What is some other advice you offer administrators?

It’s so important to cycle back. Follow-through is hard, but I tell my young administrators, “Write it down. Keep track.” I have a journal for notes and I’ve given them each a journal, which I am happy to say they are actually using . You can’t keep everything in your head, after all. Things come at you all day long. And following up with teachers is key because that shows your investment. You might cycle back a week later or a day later and to ask, “How’s it going? I know we met yesterday …”

In addition, I always cultivate a core of teachers who can keep me abreast of any issues I might not have heard about. Some of these may be my veteran teachers within my department, some outside my department. And they can come to me and say, “Loretta, this is what I’m hearing, it’s not working.” And those conversations are sacred. Those are my consiglieres. No one knows about those kinds of conversation because that would defeat the purpose. And my action on whatever they tell me, there is always a delay, so there is never a connection. I have really protected those sacred relationships.

I believe this is invaluable to administrators and it takes time to cultivate but you get some good information because we’re not always hitting the mark all the time and you don’t know what the scuttlebutt is about things, or what’s based in fear, anger, or resentment. Sometimes we know it, but sometimes we don’t know the magnitude of it either.

What are some examples of that communication within the special education context that really make a difference?

For administrators, I would say holding regular department meetings are really important … also, seeing your teachers, walking your building, popping into classrooms — all of that in addition to sending out whatever communication you’re going to send out. I think a newsletter is really helpful, a monthly newsletter to families that shares what’s happening and some of the successes that we’re seeing. I think it’s important to keep the focus positive.

I also believe in asking teachers what’s meaningful to them, what professional development they need,  and then trying to create avenues for getting them what they need. I think that’s another way to value the work that they’re doing and value them as lifelong learners as well.

What is a communication practice you would like to see changed?

E-mail can be a double-edged sword. We’re inundated with it and it’s not always an effective communication platform. I could teach a course on the parameters around e-mail because we type an e-mail, we send, and we feel that we shared the information, but there’s not a give and take. You’re not hearing someone’s voice or the intonation of their voice or the expression on their face. And our teachers are getting e-mail way beyond their school day and often are responsible for knowing that information before they walk into the door the next day. Putting some parameters around what they can expect so people are not working around the clock is really important. For example, we can set expectations by saying, “We may send an e-mail out at night, but we don’t expect you to read it till you come in in the morning.” It’s also important to be clear with families that teachers won’t be looking at e-mail between after hours.

Could you talk about some of your experience mentoring other administrators or teachers?

I do that all day, every day. I retired in 2014 as a special ed administrator for middle school and high school. And then I was home for 2 1/2 years, fully retired, and then I went back and did some per diem work, filling in for some of my colleagues. Then I came to the district where I am now, where there were schools identified as needing improvement. Like many schools, we’ve had a big turnover post-COVID. And administratively, we’ve had a huge turnover because of retirements and the elimination of certain positions. I have been here for five years. I’m currently mentoring the principal — the second principal I’ve mentored in three years. I am mentoring the assistant principal and she’s the second assistant principal. And I recently completed a year-long mentorship for the special ed director.

I have provided quite a bit of mentoring with administrators, teaching them about contracts, school policies, board policies, and in general what they’re walking into. Each district is different and it’s important to help new administrators understand the culture of their district as well as understand the scope of their big-picture and day-to-day responsibilities. My work with the assistant principal involved helping her become a skilled observer of teaching. We also talk about discipline — what’s restorative and how does restorative interface with disciplinary consequences?

Mentorship runs the gamut.

We also talk a lot about communication because administrators need to communicate differently with different groups of people depending on the message that you’re sending, and depending at the meeting that you’re having. And different messages and meetings can require different agendas.

We also talk about the importance of a debrief. “OK, how did it go? What went well? Where were you uncomfortable or what do you need? How do you think you could have controlled it?” Sometimes what happens is out of our control, so it’s important to learn how to prepare when you can and learn from situations that may have come out of the blue. Often,

it’s the debrief that really is the most valuable time that we have. Sometimes, I’m asked to attend a meeting as a silent partner in order to help them behind the scenes. What’s nice about that is I’m not evaluating in any way rather mentoring in its purest form.

Teachers also come to me when they may not want to go to an administrator. They may have seen me in other roles since I’ve been the special ed director there for short periods of time. The special ed staff feels very comfortable coming to me. And then other teachers will come to me as well because for two years I did a lot of walkthroughs. I do 15-minute visits in classrooms. I see what I see, write it up, put it in their mailbox, but it’s not evaluative. And they don’t even have to talk about it. If they want to come and meet with me, they can.

Finally, I would love to teach how to mentor. People themselves improve when they help and support others. I’m at the tail end of my career and would welcome being a sounding board, a support of any kind. I’m here to help in any and every way that I can.

How do you help support collaboration with paraprofessionals and also build respect for their roles?

We have quite a few paraprofessionals who are assigned to work with students. We also have one in our testing center. We assign them to a teacher who is their “go to,” and it’s crucial that they have time to see that teacher, whether it’s in a resource room or during a shared lunch. They feel that they have the support because of that go-to person with whom they can talk throughout the day.

That said, we did have a hard time getting paraprofessionals because of the pay scale and because of our district’s remote location. We do get many parents who come in and want to work but they are not the same as paraprofessionals so we have to be careful about who they work with … not to mention the confidentiality piece of that. The key to paraprofessional retention is providing them the PD that they need in de-escalation strategies and crisis intervention as well as training in understanding an IEP and what their role is in the classroom.

Training in some of the soft skills is also helpful in terms of how much they participate and how they support students. For example, how do they ask the teacher a question during class? When is the best time to ask questions? Soft skills take time to learn and that’s where the collaboration with the special ed teacher can really make all the difference.

How can administrators support self-care?

I’m seeing a lot of teacher burnout and counselor burnout, so we’re trying to find ways as administrators to support our staff and give them what they need for self-care though often what they need are not things we can provide.

That said, we encourage our staff to do what they need to do for themselves. And we show our appreciation for them however we can. For example, on professional development days, we’ve done a chocolate fountain, which the teachers love! We’ve also done potluck lunches, yoga, pickup volleyball games, and field days.

And even though it’s hard to find subs, it’s important to give people the time off that they need and not be judgmental about that, even in our subtle comments. We tell them to take a dedicated lunch, for example, because so many of them are working through lunch.

Also, many of them can’t tell you what they need because those needs may be personal. They’re reaching out to their friends at work, but they’re not necessarily reaching out to administrators. Oftentimes, they see reaching out to administrators as a sign of weakness. We need to break down that barrier, and we need to keep confidences. Total confidentiality is essential. In special education, we are trained around confidentiality, but sometimes general administrators don’t have that training. If you need to, ask: “Can I share this with the building principal? Can I follow up with you in a day? Can I reach out to a trusted peer? Do you want me to share this with anybody?” Make your conversations very clear and keep confidences above all else.

Finally, I encourage all educators to think long and hard before walking away from this profession. The years of COVID and now in the wake of COVID have been really difficult and intense. We all need support and I believe things will get better.

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