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Because I'm a Teacher, This Is How I Approach My Child's IEP

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I taught at a charter school for three and a half years. Each year, I attended more individualized education programs (IEP) meetings for students in the special education program than all my other years of teaching combined. It was painfully time-consuming because oftentimes, so little of the discussion pertained to me. Walking out of those conferences, the feeling of “Couldn’t they have emailed me that information?” was common.

On the other hand, I preferred being bored over being trapped in tense situations. I remember times I was forewarned of parent(s) that were known to be difficult, sometimes confrontational. And in those meetings, my thumbs bled under the nail from anxious fidgeting of my hands. They were not pleasant and after the meeting, I found myself unintentionally distancing myself from the student in fear of their parents.

Then my daughter’s diagnosis came…

I found out I were pregnant in early October 2014 and around Thanksgiving, just before my first trimester ended, my blood test cited a 98 percent chance of Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome). It also confirmed I was having another daughter, Kennedy. Oh the wonders of modern medicine!

And even though it was the furthest from my mind, this was the moment I joined the club of parents who have children in need of special education services. My brain shifted and although I still didn’t excitedly anticipate attending IEP meetings, I did stop dreading them. I took mental notes of the things parents said or did that I wanted to emulate. After the conferences concluded, I often approached them and thanked them personally for their insights. Most offered their support and guidance when I needed it in the future.

Today, my husband, Sean, and I attended Kennedy’s IEP. She attends a school outside our home district because they are unable to provide the type of services she requires. From the very beginning, the team has been phenomenal and they worked hard to find a placement that was a good fit after the county preschool denied Kennedy’s application. They also could not accommodate her.

The director of the special education department attended and facilitated the meeting. She handled the case herself and personally contacted us once the assignment was determined. She even made phone calls to Gracie’s elementary school when her assigned kindergarten schedule would make child care impossible for Kennedy’s bus pick-ups and drop-offs.

At Kennedy’s school site, a second team of professionals have picked up the IEP and they too are a fantastic group to work with. Sitting there this morning and hearing about all the progress she has made since starting school in August was mind-boggling. But more importantly, it warms our hearts to witness their genuine enthusiasm to work with our daughter.

Our job as Kennedy’s parents is to advocate for her and determine the path in which her educational journey must take. I walk in as a mother, but carry with me an empathy for the teachers across the table. I know what it is like to be judged on the progress of one child versus the effort I put in everyday (at night, during weekends, and over holiday breaks) toward the growth of 30. And in middle school, there were several groups of 30.

As a parent, Kennedy is my only concern. But to Kennedy’s teacher, she wants all her “concerns” to make progress and be successful. I cannot be blind to this because I have walked in her shoes. I still do.

Sean and I always come with coffee and, for this morning’s gathering, a dozen bagels because a couple years ago I was thrilled to find a basket of snacks and water bottles on the conference table for what turned out to be a three-and-a-half hour IEP. We passed out a copy of Kennedy’s resume. It highlights her accomplishments and long-term goals of graduating high school and living “an independent life as a responsible member of society.” We don’t want them to forget that there is something bigger and further along that this meeting has to build towards. Finally, we print out and frame a photo of Kennedy to display on the table for the entire team to see. In case the discussion gets tense (and thus far it hasn’t yet), we have a visual and adorable reminder of the reason we are gathered together.

These are the things I would have wanted as a professional. It would have kept me focused on the task at hand and yet looking at the bigger picture of this one student’s life. It would have reminded me that the conversation going on at that moment was too important to just be emailed. Lord knows I probably would have skimmed it the way I did the other eight dozen messages in my work inbox.

As a teacher, all I have ever wanted to do was help the struggling student. Even outside of the classroom, I try to assist friends who are trying to help their children navigate the academic labyrinth. And now with my experience with Kennedy, it made sense to take the next step and become a certified IEP coach so I can help parents become more aware of what to expect in those meetings. Yes, I want them to be prepared for the possible butting of heads and ideas. But more importantly, my hope is to make them understand there is a human on the other side. That a vast majority of teachers (both in special education and mainstreamed classrooms) do not go into this specific branch of teaching unless they really have the heart for the students they will serve.

There is one thing I have learned so far from Kennedy’s IEP journey: It is not so much that my daughter has disabilities as much as she needs people to help her along the way.

Follow this journey at Blest With Grace.

Getty image by yacobchuk

Originally published: June 11, 2019
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