Fourth in a five-part series on IEP’s…
Day #149 – The IEP
Day #150 – The IEP: Dear IEP Team, (a note from a parent’s perspective)
Day #151 – The IEP: Dear Parents (a note from the IEP team)
Tomorrow? Day #153: Dear Grown Ups, (a message from our child)
From my dear cousin, Chelsea, who also happens to be the first baby I ever held. She is a Special Education Teacher and I asked her to write a letter to all of the ‘general education’ teachers, this is an area in which I won’t even pretend to have knowledge. Regardless, these thoughts need to be share. So – this is for you – teachers of science and literacy, of mathematics and world studies, of physical education and art.
Dear Fellow Teacher,
I am Nikki’s cousin (and therefore Tucker’s cousin). Nikki was always the cool cousin. She babysat me and took me swimming. She held my hand in Sunday School and prayed in the church pew in front of me. She always treated me like I was important to her. Always. She also gives awesome hugs. No joke. If you know Nikki loves you, then you know she loves every part you. Even the ugly, scary, messy parts.
I am a teacher and a mom. I often cry when I read one of Nikki’s posts. I know what it is like to be a teacher. It often feels we have so many ‘requirements’ that we forget about caring for students’ hearts. I know what it is like to want to give your child roots and wings – as a teacher and a mom.
First, I want to point out that my “special education” endorsement is actually called Instructional Strategist. The focus of my training was on the “how” to teach, not the “what.” I believe that every teacher needs this endorsement. At a minimum, it would be prudent for all teachers to student teach in a special education classroom (even if for two weeks). Working with special needs students is not a choice; you WILL work with special needs students, even if they aren’t labeled as such. As special education teachers, we are first trained as general education teachers so we know what it is like to be in your shoes.
I want you to know I understand the difficulty of your job. There is never “enough.” Enough time. Enough money. Enough supplies. Enough space. Enough support. Enough ideas. Enough love. It is exhausting, isn’t it? You have all these students whom you adore and then, I as special education teacher, come at you and say, “I want you to know that we share these special education students.” I didn’t say it to ruin your day. I promise.
But I need you to know some things about my classroom.
- All the students on a special education roster have special needs. There aren’t typically other students to “balance” the special education classroom. It’s hard for me to create “diverse” groups, especially groups where I can have student leaders.
- In addition to the testing you do for your content areas, I am also required to “progress monitor” at least every two weeks for each goal area. Some students are progress monitored even more frequently. This data is then inputted into each student’s IEP.
- You may see fewer students in my class but here are some of my tasks:
- Plan, teach, and review lessons for several different ‘levels’ of children
- IEP Writing
- IEP Data Collection
- Monitoring, checking-in, and taking notes on students in the general education Setting
- Help students in crisis (emotional or behavioral)
Some of my students don’t have academic goals. These are students like Tucker. They have “behavior” or “social skill” goals. These goals are hard to track because they are so subjective. What is acceptable to one teacher is not to another. Sometimes these goals involve a tracking sheet the student carries with them to your class. These goals are tough because many people are responsible for their tracking. It’s frustrating when these goals aren’t tracked because we get fragmented data and fragmented data makes for botched decisionmaking and botched decisionmaking doesn’t help students. Behavioral rewards and consequences are also hard to give if we don’t have the necessary data.
I know these rewards looks like fun. While many times these accommodations (quiet time, use of sensory items, the swing, bouncy cushions, making “tents” and “forts”) are actually “fun,” they are also used as tools. These tools help guide a student back to a place where s/he can function within the mainstream expectations. A special education teacher’s job is to get a student back to “normalcy” as quickly as possible.
I once had a student who had a full-on meltdown. Climbing walls, throwing objects, screaming, slamming doors, hiding, running, more shouting, hitting himself, threatening, tearing paper. After this was over and everyone was calm, this student fell asleep in the corner. I was criticized by some of my colleagues for letting him sleep. “You can’t just let him sleep after he acted like that!” Why not? My goal is to get a student back to his normal school day routine as quickly as possible. Do you want an exhausted student in your class? What can I actually teach an exhausted student? If I sent him back exhausted, things could (and most likely would) have escalated again.
I also need you to explicitly define and demonstrate your expectations. This is especially crucial for kiddos on the spectrum. Terms like “pay attention” are arbitrary and do not have concrete meaning for many students. What does “pay attention” look like? Feel like? Sound like? This goes for sayings like, “use your inside voice,” “be responsible,” “sit still.”
What suggestions can I offer you to make your life with students with special needs easier? Remember that my expertise lies in the “how” to teach, not always the “what.” Come to me with WHAT you want our student to know/be able to do and we can come up with the HOW together. When I come into your room, it isn’t because I am judging you. I need to see how our students are getting along in the general education environment. I am also checking to be sure you are getting the support you need.
You could consider offering accommodations to all your students.
- Some of your IEP students require tests read aloud? Make an announcement at the beginning of the test saying, “Anyone that would like their test read aloud, may come and sit here.”
- Supposed to “chunk” assignments for a student? Chunk it for everybody.
- One of your IEP students requires choice seating? Allow all your students to pick where to sit within your predetermined limits. Or, students have to sit in a different seat everyday.
- Have a student sensitive to lighting? Allow all students to wear sunglasses and hats to their comfort level.
- One of your students needs a “safe place?” At the beginning of the school year, allow all students to determine a “safe place.”
- A student needs shortened assignments? Write at the top of each students’ page how many problems he/she gets to pick to complete. (Now you’ve incorporated choice for even more motivation!)
- Finding accommodations that everyone can use is one of my favorite parts of teaching.
Please understand that an IEP is LEGALLY BINDING DOCUMENT. That means scary people like lawyers can get involved, y’all. We can all get in big trouble if every item on that document isn’t followed. It’ll take up even more of our precious time if we aren’t committed. More meetings. More paperwork. IEPs are about leveling the playing field.
What do you do if a child refuses an accommodation? Document. This indicates you offered what was required, but the child rejected. I would also suggest contacting the parent so when the child who is supposed to have tests read to him/her says no and then fails, the parent won’t be surprised.
If there is something you need to support a special education student in your classroom, don’t be afraid to ask. However, please have the data to support your request. Nothing will get done on an IEP without data.
Come to IEP meetings with data and examples. Please don’t complain about the IEP if you didn’t make an effort to be there or to share the stories, data, and examples for your classroom. Special education teachers realize that the IEP meeting time may not work for everyone. If you can’t be there, make an effort to write or record something about the student to have shared at the meeting.
Please know I want what is best for our students — just as you do. I have found that what works well for special education students typically works even better for general education students. I love to offer ideas to support all students you teach, but legally, my primary concern has to be with the students on my roster.
Thank you for being a continued blessing in the lives of all students.
The Special Education Teacher