Guess what? As a special education advocate, I am not the enemy. What I am is a former public educator who has been in your shoes. I taught 5th grade for 12 years and I was good at it. I received numerous awards during my time in the classroom, including South Dakota Teacher of the Year. I also have my Master’s Degree in Education. Yet with all these accolades and degree’s, I can tell you I failed so many students. I began my educational career with exactly one class in special education on my resume. ONE! After 12 years of teaching, it was still ONE. I had no training in Dyslexia, no training in Autism, no training in emotional problems, no training in ODD, no training in Downs Syndrome; yet I was expected to sit at that IEP table and contribute. I was expected to execute that IEP like I knew what I was doing. I read books, took Love and Logic classes, and did what I could but deep down I knew I was out of my depth with some of my students. They needed more. They needed experts in their area of need. I knew those kids deserved better.
I am ashamed to admit, understanding these differently abled people and how they learned was not at the top of my to do list. I regret this every single day. This is one of the big reasons I chose advocacy, I chose to complete two and half years of training with national organizations like COPAA and ISEA. I chose to learn about Orton-Gillingham. I chose to rely on experts in OT or ABA therapy because they know better. I realized when kids were having meltdowns, throwing things, threatening others, I had NO IDEA how to respond in a way that could truly help them. When I had students who still could not read or write effectively after all my whole language strategies, I had NO IDEA they needed something more structured. As an educator, I hated it. I hated I could not help these kids. I hated they left my classroom missing some valuable tools. I hated no one was helping when I was saying over and over, “Something is off. This child needs more. This child needs something different.” To be clear, saying these statements should not make anyone the enemy, not even me, the child’s advocate. Saying this makes me an advocate who believes in the power of public education. It makes me an advocate who believes in teachers and believes the system can work. It makes me someone who is flexible and willing to try new things. It makes me someone willing to learn and admit they need help. It does not make me your enemy.
Somehow, last year advocacy became the enemy of public educators across the nation. I even felt those effects here in South Dakota. Out of all the teams I worked with last year I can only cite two who were kind, understanding, and open to the presence of an advocate. That is sad. I found myself in IEP meetings shocked at some people’s reaction to my presence. The anger, the condescending tones, the gaslighting; it was awful. I was sworn at, yelled at and accused of terrible things. This is unacceptable behavior in public education and therefore deserves the reminder again, I am not the enemy.
The true enemy is being closed off to a family’s requests, not being open to new ideas, and not allowing yourself to be open to discussion and compromise. I may hold you to a high standard, I may ask more of you for the sake of a child, I may write down what is being said for a clear record moving forward, I may ask hard questions, and I may even challenge status quo. This does not make me your enemy. This makes me the kind of teammate you want to work with, the kind of teammate who is open to new ideas, who puts children ahead of everything and everyone else, and who will do her best to help that child learn, regulate, and have written in their plan anything else they need. I know it is YOUR classroom, YOUR school, YOUR day to day with this child. If the child gets what they need, if they can find that success, the child will be better for it and so will YOUR classroom. As the school year begins, if I am at your IEP meeting know I will continue to speak up for the best interest of the child. The only thing I ask in return is to remember, I am not the enemy.