Thursday, April 9, 2009

IEP H-E-Double Hockey Sticks!

This is THE time of the year that I HATE! It's IEP time! Time to write those yearly individualized plans for each of my Special Education students. I love almost everything about being a Special Education teacher but this time of year turns me into a cynic. It's the only time of year I feel out of sorts and stressed with anxiety bubbling right below the surface.

It's not that I don't understand the IEP process. I do. Early in my career I got to know a group of parents from NC that fought for PL 94:142, the law that granted ALL children the right to a public education and brought the first IEPs into our lives. Before that law many children were excluded from public school and early in my career I directed a "developmental day care center" run under the Mental Health System that rounded those excluded kids up and offered them an alternative from staying at home all day. Kids came because they were young and hearing impaired and their parents didn't want to send their three year old off to boarding school (the only option), or because they weren't potty trained (a law on the books at the time said that if you weren't potty trained you couldn't go to school which effected many of our youngest children) or because they were multiply handicapped (deaf-blind and with cerebral palsy, for example) or they were very physically involved (with a feeding tube, for instance) or they were severely or profoundly handicapped or many other combinations of challenges not provided for in public education. We served children from two to 12. Even then, we wrote individualized plans, but back then we were driven by our need to sit down with all the stake holders in a child's life and find ways to do what was best for the child - not by a legal system or a mandate. Parents and teachers just sat together and shared their dreams and their expectations and then put a plan into place to make a difference.

Somewhere along the way, the court system got involved and now we seem to have this "you verses us" mind set. All of my career it seems there have been these broad general threats of audits or threats about having to go to court or having to sit with a lawyer at the table, as if "somebody" was always watching and you certainly aren't doing it right.. It's never actually happened but every year something changes about the IEP because or a new law or a new interpretation of the law or some new legal precedent. I think I've actually learned 3 or 4 different computerized IEP programs without leaving the same county. For years, I stressed and worried over every "i" I dotted and every "t" I crossed, because "somebody" might come take me away. I would read every single word of the three page checklist for every IEP of everything to remember so I wouldn't get "caught." I went into meetings with parents and then when I reflected after the fact, it seemed we spent most of the time worrying about compliance of the IEP instead of the needs of the parents and the education of the child - and then we wonder why parents don't seem to trust teachers and the school system?

As the years have peeled away, I have lost most of that fear (what are they going to do - fire me?) and have tried at the IEP conference to remember, it is about the child - not the document... but it's hard - with our computers out and little red stars popping up if something is not compliant. It interrupts the flow of the conversation. I also realized that in all the IEP audit sheets I've been forced to do over the years that no question is ever asked about the quality of the IEP. I didn't matter because I really do understand that it's about the child's needs and I always make sure that the parent had REAL input in his child's education?   The only question that is ever asked in an audit is if I have the signature on the right line and that my dates match and that I checked the right boxes - because surely that will guarantee academic and social growth! I also resent the month I miss of instruction (which is what it takes to test, write and meet for a normal class load - even when you're doing most of the writing at home on your own time). I have to admit that I do really enjoy meeting with the parents and sharing so much good news, but the truth of the matter is, I would do that anyway, with or without a document to sign.
I long for a system that goes back to the days when the child was at the center instead of a piece of paper and the court system. I feel so fortunate to have been a teacher in the early years so that I still understand the heart and original intent of the process. I can still see the faces of children and parents who just wanted a system that cared. I will never forget the parent whose child was denied entrance at school saying to me with tears running down her cheeks - I just want him to have a chance at a productive life. If I can keep that picture in my mind when I close my eyes, maybe I can get through this process with a little dignity and calm. That is my prayer. That is my dream... Now, take a deep breath...

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