By Lisa Berghoff
I have sat in on so many IEP meetings over the past nineteen years… too many to count, actually. Most of the time, the IEP team becomes greatly energized at the point of the meetings when the students share their progress from the school year, and their hopes and dreams for the following year and beyond. The team members sit and anxiously hang on every word as the students communicate, in their own ways, where they see themselves headed in the future. You can almost see the wheels turning as parents, private providers, and school personnel try to make connections for the students so we can set them up for a successful, challenging, and interesting experience with their typically developing peers.
The adults in the room typically begin to ask questions such as “What do you like to do in your free time?” and “Is there a subject you like best?” and even “Is there a time of day when you feel you do best in school?” The team is frantically trying to think of the most natural class fit for this particular student. They are picturing the student learning about a subject that he or she loves, surrounded by typical peers who are potential friends. Isn’t that, after all, the true vision of inclusion?
However, as I sit in the IEP meetings, I am going through my mental Rolodex of amazing teachers whom I consider collaborators, innovators, community builders, and if we’re really being honest here… friends.
I am not suggesting that parents and private providers try to find out who their child’s teacher is meeting for coffee before school. What I am suggesting is that more often than not, the key to successful inclusion may have more to do with the relationship between the teachers than the subject matter, time of day, or makeup of the class.
Find Teachers Who Already Have A Good Relationship
In my experience, when teachers have a friendly relationship, it can be a win-win for everyone. Teachers and service providers who have a positive working relationship are more likely to communicate frequently and be open and honest with one another about how best to set up the student for success. They are more likely to ask for and accept feedback from one another about what strategies are or are not working for the student. They are more willing to have each other in their classrooms without feeling threatened or defensive.
My students are used to seeing me pop in and out of their classes, and when the teacher is a friend, it is almost as if I am stopping by to see the teacher and not to observe the student. This puts my students at ease, does not draw attention from the other students, and allows me to see how my students are doing in a more natural setting. I’m just another friendly face coming into the class to witness the amazing things that are going on, and the teacher is only too happy to welcome me into his or her room.
Now, this is a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg discussion, because over the years, I have found that some of my best teacher friendships began because we shared a student and had to work together to figure out a way to make things work well for everyone in the class. We formed a bond over thinking outside the box and trying some unconventional methods, some of which failed miserably, but through that process of joint reflection and modification, our friendship was sealed.
Friends trust each other. When students with challenging needs are placed in classrooms where the professionals share a collegial friendship, they will share information that is anecdotal, and often more beneficial than what is written on official documents. Also, we are able to discover new ways to benefit all of our students when we find time to interact in a friendly, informal manner.
For example, a former student with autism, (I’ll call her Sally because I don’t actually think I’ve had a student named Sally in the past nineteen years), has an affinity for trains. She enjoys talking, reading, writing stories about, and watching videos about trains. This is well known and noted in the IEP materials. However, as I was chatting with Sally’s math teacher on one of our “planning walks” around the building, we noticed that in one corner of one hallway, if we looked out the window in just the right way, we could actually see the train tracks across the street. Upon this discovery, we decide to use this space for Sally when she’s struggling to engage in math class and needs a brain break. Sally is so overjoyed by this tiny corner window that she asks a typical peer to join her. After a few minutes of watching the tracks (and we cross our fingers that a train actually goes by) with her pal, she’s right back in class and engaging in learning. Eventually, everyone is interested in the train track view and the other kids enjoy being chosen by Sally to accompany her. Now, these students have a shared experience with Sally, and Sally knows that she has a positive way to refocus and be a part of the class.
I am happy to say that I have many colleagues whom I call friends and the list continues to grow as new teachers come to my building. With many years of experience, I am very open to forming new relationships as that just opens more doors for my students and makes my job so much more enjoyable.
Committed To Student Success
So, when I am sitting in IEP meetings listening to the adults toss out suggestions for possible placements for a student, I find myself thinking about the teachers whom I consider friends. And even though it might not be the student’s favorite subject or the most ideal time of day, I know the student is going to have a positive experience in this teacher’s class because we so enjoy working together and we share a joint passion for the student’s success. Simply put, we won’t give up. Friends would not do that to each other.
As a parent or outside service provider, here are a few questions to raise about placement that can help steer the student into a situation where the teachers’ positive relationship could have a positive impact on the student’s experience.
1. Which teachers in the building have you worked with successfully for inclusion?
2. Which teachers are especially skilled at welcoming students with special needs into their classroom community?
3. If subject was not a factor, which teacher would be the best fit for my child and this team?
4. How are you most likely to communicate with this teacher?