by Dr. Erin F. Klash and Kim P. Pennisi
Educating a child is a great privilege and responsibility. As a professional educator of more than a decade, I (Erin) am keenly aware of this. However, the first child I taught was a beautiful baby boy: my son, Jeff (pseudonym). Jeff is exceptional; he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as additional diagnoses which present challenges pertinent to his educational experience. My role as a parent and educator often overlap – and conflict – in providing educational opportunities for Jeff.
As the day approached for Jeff to move to 8th grade at the local junior high school, I found myself anxious. Will his special education teacher advocate for him, if needed? Will his general education teachers be patient with him? Do they know what Asperger’s Syndrome is and how it presents itself? Will teachers have high expectations for Jeff? Will Jeff be able to keep up in class? Will he be bullied? Will his teachers like him and, more importantly, will he like them? Even though my “teacher brain” knew all would be well, these questions and more filled my “parent brain” as “Meet the Teacher” day drew near. When that day arrived, the first room we visited was his special education class where we met the most wonderful teacher, Mrs. Kim Pennisi. At that time, we could not have possibly known how wonderful she was, but we knew one thing: she called Jeff by name when he walked through the door. That singular event set the tone for two years of a remarkable collaboration to support Jeff in his academic, social, and emotional development.
Kim is a special education teacher and department chair at a junior high school in Alabama, which is home to approximately 1,300 8th and 9th graders. She has taught special education courses as an adjunct instructor at a university in Alabama and has more than 20 years of teaching experience. Kim is friendly and passionate, which was immediately apparent when we entered her classroom for the first time. Her authenticity resonated, but more so the great care she already exhibited toward her students.
The parent-teacher relationship is quintessential in educating a child (Evertson & Emmer, 2017). In working with Kim for two years, we encountered a series of opportunities to collaborate. Throughout that time, when I had concerns, Kim was able to address them effectively, and I certainly reciprocated. In this collaborative article, Kim and I offer three examples of parental concerns (Erin) and strategies to effectively address them (Kim).
- Parents are anxious about their child’s (exceptional) education.
Concern (Erin): I trust and value the perspective of Jeff’s special and general educators. Even so, even with my in-depth knowledge of the field, I still find myself anxious about the nuances of Jeff’s educational experience, ranging from academic to social to emotional learning. I want teachers to have developmentally appropriate, high expectations of my child, but provide scaffolds to support him, as needed. I want Jeff to develop strong friendships, but also recognize challenges associated with ASD that creates hardships in social skills development. Jeff deserves opportunity to be honest and true to himself without the fear of being misinterpreted as disrespectful, especially given his textbook lack of voice inflection. Kim played a significant role in addressing this concern.
Strategy (Kim): The most important way to start the year is to have the IEP in the hands of the teachers before the first day of school. The classroom teachers need time to read it and make notes. I also send a “cheat sheet” for each student. It has the student’s academic level very simply stated – reading grade level, math grade level, and written language grade level. I also have a brief statement about behavioral concerns with tips/expectations of how the teacher needs to handle those behaviors. I maintain close contact with all classroom teachers for the first few weeks of school. It is harder on me, but it is so much easier to be proactive than reactive. During the first weeks of school I make every effort to build a foundation of mutual respect and expectations. My philosophy is simple – I am here to help you be successful. The teacher-student relationship is vital for student success. The teen years are hard.
- The IEP process is COMPLEX!
Concern (Erin): Navigating the IEP process is complex and can be overwhelming. First, I always do my homework – I fill out the parent information sheet to contribute to the student profile of his IEP, I read and offer feedback on draft IEPs, but even then, I still have questions. How do I know if an accommodation benefits Jeff? What are the long-term implications of this contract? Legally, is the school allowed to make changes without my knowledge or consent? Also, IEP team meetings can feel like a “hot seat” when I am sitting in a room of people who want to talk about what’s “exceptional” about Jeff’s development and performance (oftentimes framed as “wrong with”). This is one area where collaboration between the parent and special education teacher(s) is invaluable. Kim had a sense of knowing when, what, and how to respond in a way to help me better understand the ins and outs of the IEP and to feel more comfortable in the process.
Strategy (Kim): My philosophy in IEP meetings is go through it in a productive manner. Spending the entire time focused on negatives is not constructive. My teachers know this is not a bash the student time. I remind the entire faculty multiple times we are meeting to make a plan for someone’s baby. I expect them to participate the way they would want a teacher to participate in their child’s IEP meeting.
I also try my best to use words and phrases parents understand. Education jargon is not helpful. It is usually a distracter from the real issue: Jeff. I try to watch the facial expressions and body language of the parent. I will adjust the meeting accordingly. Since I do spend a significant amount of time building a relationship with student, parent, and teachers, it is easy for me to interject and steer the meeting in the direction I feel is most productive. It is always important to remind parents that an IEP is a living document that can be changed at any time. It is not set in stone. We do have a process to follow, but we can absolutely make changes.
- Educating a child is a team effort.
Concern (Erin): Mutual advocacy for quality educative experiences is a final concern I continue to have about Jeff’s formal educational experience. Getting to know new teachers in the transition from school to school, even within the same system, can be a challenge for parents of students with exceptionalities. Will we be “on the same team,” sharing a similar vision for Jeff’s education? Will my advocacy be perceived as an overstepping of boundaries? Am I a “helicopter parent” because I advocate? Under what constraints do his teachers operate within the system? Kim addressed these concerns both directly and indirectly in the two years we collaborated to educate Jeff.
Strategy (Kim): My primary role as the case manager and special education teacher is to be an advocate for the students. I will always support my students and fight for them. I believe all behaviors/choices have a consequence. The consequences can be good, bad, or neutral. I teach my students to always accept the consequences. I will be by their side if they are in trouble. I will not try to get a student out of trouble, but to provide the support needed to help them accept consequences and learn from their choices. This also means I will defend a student as fiercely as needed. I know my students and I know their flaws. I will work to make sure each one is heard and treated fairly. I am the momma at school. If the parent advocates from home and I advocate at school — the outcome is a win for Jeff. Parents and students appreciate this. My administration appreciates this. This philosophy allows me to build relationships that foster positive growth and mutual respect. Important note: communication with parents should be fluid and comprehensive. Celebrating is as important as the hard calls home.
The concerns and strategies to address them shared are common to many parents of children with exceptionalities. Students benefit from parent-teacher collaborations, but especially exceptional children. Every interaction between a parent and teacher is an opportunity to collaborate to educate the child in the most appropriate environment possible. Understanding the concerns parents bring into the collaborative relationship can help special education teachers better plan for and serve the student. Through collaboration, Kim and I were able to provide great benefits in Jeff’s educational experience. Open and honest communication is key in these collaborations and sometimes require compromise. However, with trust, respect, competence, and communication, parent-teacher collaborations can springboard success for students in special education programs.
Evertson, C.M. & Emmer, E.T. (2017). Classroom management for elementary teachers. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.