“Us versus Them” in Special Education (Part 3): Navigating the System

Speaking up in a culture of “us versus them” begins with courage and a willingness to venture into a world that is not our own. Yet, courage will only get us so far. Overcoming a fear of flying, may get us to a seat on the plane. But without a plan, we’re sure to get lost and a new set of fears and emotions are bound to follow. On any journey, it’s best to chart your course beforehand and to plan accordingly.

The Destination
If we want to go to France, we know that we will need a plane ticket. But a plane ticket won’t guarantee that we reach our destination. We must be specific about where we want to go. Otherwise, we might end up with a ticket to China.

In the same way, in advocating for the needs of a student, we must be specific about the outcome that we are looking for while also considering the means to reach that outcome. For example, a teacher may advocate for a 1:1 paraprofessional for a student who is demonstrating aggressive behaviors. Is the 1:1 paraprofessional the destination or is it the means to another outcome? A request like this becomes compelling when the requestor can articulate how the means supports the ends.

A Tour Guide
When traveling, a tour guide helps us to know which roads to take and what to pay attention to along the way. If our destination is France, then we want a tour guide who can translate for us and who knows how to get us from the airport to the next stop.

In the school system, knowing which tour guide to turn to for support and direction depends on the roles and the hierarchy for decision-making that are defined by a school or a district. While the principal or vice principal may be the leaders within a school building, they may or may not be the best person to seek out for guidance. It is important to determine who handles decisions related to your specific concern. Is it a building decision, a department decision, a district level decision? When in doubt, contact the special education office in your district. Administrators can be very busy, so when possible work with the office manager or director’s assistant to understand the appropriate process.

An Itinerary
An itinerary provides an order to things and helps us to prioritize steps along our journey, ensuring that we experience the best possible outcome. If we want to tour the Eiffel Tower, then we need to plan our trip so that we arrive in Paris in time for a tour.

If a teacher waits until an IEP meeting to discuss concerns about a student’s behavior and the need for additional support, the decision-maker may not even be in the room. If this person is in the room, they may feel caught and ill-prepared to respond. It is important to consider what conversations and preparation needs to occur before making a request. Scheduling a meeting or a phone conference can be especially effective in promoting a space for active listening.

A Map
A map provides a common language. There is always more than one road to the destination and a rationale for which road to take. If we get to France and are without a tour guide, the map is our tool to finding our way.

In special education, data is our map. Clear data is a common, objective language that provides information about what has occurred to date. Data defines our current location. It is a tool for determining a common destination and gives us information to guide our next steps.

When we’re lost and confused by what seems to be endless dead ends in the system of special education, we must return to our map. We must be willing to ask for help and be open to more than one way of reaching our destination.

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