I’ve been a special educator for over 30 years. In that time, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of parents, teachers, and administrators. I’ve had countless conversations with all of them. The atmosphere has changed over the course of those years from parents and teachers working with and respecting each other, to parents versus teachers and school systems. While this is across the board no matter the grade, subject, or level, sadly, where I see this the most is between parents of children eligible for special education and general education teachers.
About halfway through my career, I became frustrated with general education teachers and the school system. I had seen how schools and teachers could have done more for the special education students and families, but didn’t. I did work with some teachers who welcomed and accepted every student into their room, but those were few and far between. I had heard the comments, seen the eye rolls, and been specifically told some awful things about my students. I heard teachers say things like:
“The parents are making excuses for their children.”
“The child is lazy.”
“The child should know better.”
“They won’t get this help in (the next grade, college, life, etc)”
“If the child would just (stop fidgeting, stop talking, pay attention, etc) he/she would do much better.”
As a special education teacher, these sorts of comments led me to believe that these teachers didn’t value my students and didn’t want my students in their classrooms. I remember talking to a general education teacher once about students in her room who had an IEP and her exact words were, “If I had wanted to teach those kids, I would have gone to school for that.” I was angry, no I was furious with her for making such a statement. How could an educator say such a thing?! As educators, we chose to go into this profession to teach children. Period. It shouldn’t matter who walks into our classroom! I held onto that statement and stayed angry with that teacher for years while we worked together. In fact, I applied the statement from that one teacher to all of the teachers who made comments or grumbled about my students, as I believed it to be true for them, too.
I liked this teacher as a person and for her general education students, she was great. In fact, all the teachers I’ve ever worked with I liked as people and thought most of them were good teachers for their general education students. They taught the students in their rooms who had an IEP just as they did those who didn’t. They had the same expectations for learning for each of the students in their room. I believe they cared about every student, whether the student had an IEP or not. However, there was a difference in how they treated the students with an IEP. The belief system of special education and students who needed an IEP was flawed. From my perspective, they treated students with an IEP as though they were a burden and not as capable as those without an IEP.
When I first became an Individualized Education Program (IEP) coach I only wanted to work with families who had a child eligible for special education. I had seen firsthand the difficulty parents had in understanding this large, legal document that drove their child’s education. I believed they were getting the raw end of the deal. I believed and had experienced firsthand the perceived “your child is a burden to me” teachers and school systems. I wanted to make the teachers provide what the child needed. When I started working directly with families, I found that my experiences with the school system and some teachers were the same as most of the parents I was working with. The parents said things to me such as:
“I know my child isn’t easy.”
“Why can’t the school just do what is right?”
“I don’t know what is happening at school.”
“My child doesn’t act that way at home.”
“The school doesn’t see what I see at home.”
This solidified for me, even more, the perceived thought and belief of most general education teachers feeling the “your child is a burden to me,” when it came to students with an IEP. After a couple of years of working with families, I went through the Master IEP Coach® mentorship program. I found out there was a lot more to the IEP process and special education than even I had known or had forgotten. During my tenure as a teacher, I had taken several more classes on fine-tuning the writing of the IEP, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) law, how the brain works, and child development. I realized that with all my knowledge and experiences if I didn’t know or remember many of these things, how would other educators?
I also remembered how much training specifically focused on special education I would have received if I had only completed my elementary education degree instead of earning both degrees. Our universities only require three to six credit hours of special education training out of approximately 125 hours of credit for general educators to earn their degree. That is less than five percent of their entire training to be a teacher! However, we require those same general education teachers to teach anyone who walks through their door. In the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 15% of all students received special education services. Those are just the ones who have been found eligible for special education, that doesn’t include the ones who haven’t been evaluated or identified as needing special education. When that realization hit me, my perceived belief about my general education teachers changed.
I began looking at their comments differently. I am ashamed to say that as someone who touts, “All behavior is communication and behaviors are personal to the one exhibiting them, not receiving them,“ that it didn’t dawn on me to apply this knowledge to those statements. Our universities do not properly train our general education teachers and even some of our special education teachers to feel confident in their ability to teach EVERY child that walks through their door. Yes, they chose the education profession but they didn’t choose the special education profession. Just as the parent of a child who is eligible for special education may have chosen to be a parent, they likely didn’t choose and certainly don’t wish for their child to need special education services.
When I apply that knowledge to the statements I’ve heard from both groups over the years, I hear the same things. Now what I hear is:
“I'm afraid of failing.”
“I feel alone.”
“I want to be valued.”
“I want to be respected.”
“I want to be heard.”
Are you feeling this way? Do you automatically presume the other group is against you and instantly feel you must defend your stance? If you do, try to remember these overarching thoughts and attempt to reach common ground.
It doesn’t matter if it is a parent, teacher, or administrator that I am speaking to, I can boil down the sentiment in the statement to those mentioned above. This has changed my approach and has changed how I work. I now work with parents, teachers, and administrators to find the common ground mentioned above. I truly believe that if each person recognizes that the other is likely coming from a similar place we can make collaboration and respect a thing of the present, instead of a thing of the past.
Shelley Kenow is not a lawyer and does not provide legal advice. This is her opinion based on years of experience and training in special education. To learn more about Shelley Kenow and her coaching business visit www.shelleykenow.com,