In the over 30 years that I’ve been in the field of education, first as a teacher, later as an administrator, and currently as a supervisor of students teachers, I’ve experienced many things that left an impression on me. Here’s a true story that had such an impact on me that I still think about it now, over 20 years after it occurred. I was a unit coordinator and was in charge of a few classes at an offsite of our school. I was also an experienced educator in the field of special education, taught for many years, wrote a myriad of IEPS, attended many trainings on the IEP process and did turnkey trainings as well.
I was asked by a colleague of mine, Ms. D, to accompany her to her son’s IEP conference at the Committee on Special Education. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss moving her son, who was already in a class for children with disabilities, to a more restrictive environment. His school felt that he wasn’t doing well in his current setting; too many behavior issues. Ms. D thought that I could help her negotiate the process and I was happy to assist. Sure, I was a professional; I held IEP meetings in the school many times; I knew how to write IEPs: this would be simple. Nothing could have prepared either one of us for what we encountered.
We were greeted by a social worker who alleged she knew Ms. D’s son so well that he could make all of the recommendations for his educational future. He rattled off the results of the tests, using terminology that was unfamiliar to Ms. D. He listed all of the negative qualities of her 7 year old and made his case for why this child needed a more restrictive environment. He monopolized the conversation and made Ms. D feel like she was a bad, unconcerned parent. (let me mention that Ms. D was a hardworking single mother of 3, divorced from her husband, a drug abuser.) If Ms. D asked a question, the answer was trite and flippant. The psychologist was a bit more compassionate but certainly not an advocate. I, someone who is usually very verbal, was so shaken, that I had little to say. Ms. D and I left the meeting feeling angry and disheartened. It was not the issue of her son being moved to a different school. Ms. D felt that he would have greater supports and opportunities for success in an environment where the staff was more experienced in working with children with emotional disabilities. She was optimistic about the change. The issue for her was the way she was treated at the meeting. The issue for me was the way she was treated at the meeting.
As someone who takes every experience as a learning experience, this was a big one. I reflected on my school, how we wrote IEPS, how we embraced parents, how we made them feel (or not feel) welcome as partners in the education of their child and as stakeholders in the school, how we valued their input and insights about their child…I realized that, as much as I thought we were inclusive and welcoming, there was certainly room for improvement. Being on the other side of the table at that IEP conference taught me so much.
A few things that I learned and believe:
Parents need to be listened to, no one knows their child better than they do. They provide invaluable information that helps us to more completely understand and work with their child.
Parents need to be acknowledged. Though we may not always agree, we need to respect what the parent is saying.
Parents need support. Many have been beaten down by the system for years, told that their child is” less than” and made to feel that they are” less than” as well. In our role as educators, and in turn nurturers, parents need nurturing too.
Parents need ongoing information about the school, its values, policies, how the IEP process works and what their rights are. Transparency is crucial.
Parents need to learn and believe that they are the main advocate for their child; their voice is stronger than any teacher’s or administrator’s. Information about advocacy groups, parent support groups and agencies that provide service should be made available to them.
There is certainly much more to add to this, which I hope some of you will.
So the end of this story: Ms. D’s son flourished in his new school, felt valued, and instead of getting a steady stream of negativity, both son and mother received much positive feedback. He is an adult now, finished high school, attended college and is a successful, contributing, working, member of his family. After the meeting I called the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education to complain about the lack of professionalism and insensitivity on the part of the social worker and psychologist. He assured me that he would address them.
Gail Ray is a married mom with 2 children, both teachers of children with disabilities. A retired principal with over 30 years of experience working with young adults with varying abilities, she now mentors student teachers as they prepare to transition into this challenging, rewarding field.