I’ll never forget walking into an IEP already in progress. I was at the middle school, attending an IEP for a student who would be with us at the high school next year. This one ran a bit long and so I went across the hall to the next one already in progress. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. The young case manager was nervous and agitated, and she could barely read the present level of performance (PLOP). The parents were glaring at her the whole time. Other participants were nervous. The young LEA had been the head of the department only a year and only had one year of teaching experience under her belt. She became the head of the department by virtue of being the only special education teacher who was fully certified. This had the potential of becoming a real disaster.
After reading the PLOP, the young case manager was almost ready to move on to accommodations when I spoke up. I looked at the parents, who looked at me, and asked, “What are your concerns?”
They spent several minutes unloading their concerns, their hopes and their fears. And we listened. I asked questions about their daughter and gathered information. But mostly I listened.
I’ve been on multiple sides of the table, as teacher, parent and LEA. Even though I know the system inside and out, it is still massively intimidating to walk into a room where professionals are seemingly arrayed against you. And trust me, they are. If my son’s teacher gets even a whiff that I might have an issue, she stacks the meeting full of every teacher, therapist, administrator, and professional she can get her hands on. I can feel my wife, Jane’s, knees buckling when we walk in. I know these people and work with some of them regularly. And I still get nervous. I know my son’s teachers dread it, because my presence is akin to Darth Vader’s. I know the law and possess the considerable skills to wield it like a light saber to cut them all down.
But I don’t. I work with them and surprise them with my agreeable nature at the meeting. You see, that’s because I am the Sith in the days approaching the meeting. I demand records, data and any draft copies in advance of the meeting. What I’m trying to do is eliminate any surprises at the meeting for all of us. My call for raw data sheets and graphs last year turned the poor teachers’ hair white. And the data and graphs were abominable. But we work together and the meetings usually go fairly smoothly.
If you do not communicate and listen to the parents as the IEP approaches you can expect an earful at the meeting in front of everyone. Parents often come in loaded for bear. They are anxious and nervous. They may get emotional and confrontational. Failure to do groundwork before hand can result in a long and painful meeting.
At that middle school meeting, I sensed the problem and took control, guiding the novice case manager through. She was nervous and read every part of the IEP line-by-line. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble and time by sending a proposed draft to parents ahead of time. But we did survive. The parents eventually were satisfied enough that they left the meeting early, leaving us to finish it up. The young case manager took me aside after the meeting. “I sure am glad you were there!”
Besides new teachers and paras, I have a burn for parents. I care about them and what they are going through raising a child with special needs. Especially parents of older students because they are blazing the trail for those of us who have younger kids in the system. I can always learn from them. I’m not just politely listening, I am actively listening and paying attention and they sense this. Each one represents a future that I may have to face one day. As teachers, it is not enough to care just about our students. We need to care about the parents, too. We come in with our predominately white, middle class values and impose them on the parents who may not fall into that category. They sense our judgment and resent us mightily for our condescending and patronizing attitudes. And rightly so, because until we are able to walk in their shoes, we know nothing.