As teachers, our daily work is not only imparting knowledge to students, but advocating for their rights and best interests. The culture of the schools we work in and the relationships between teachers, parents and students directly impact our ability to advocate effectively for our students. When it comes to students with needs that extend beyond typical education into special education, I experienced this first hand in my school.
I was a first-year special education teacher when I met a student I’ll call Juan, who was in his final year of elementary school. Juan was diagnosed with a mild cognitive disability, and while he spent the majority of the day with his peers, he was in need of intensive special education support. Juan also had many social and emotional needs borne from a childhood marked by trauma, including family members involved in gangs, and parents who cared for him deeply but worked so much that they were seldom present in his daily life. Juan was charismatic and friendly, but also acted out frequently during the school day, especially with adults with whom he did not trust or connect. He desperately needed time with a special education teacher.
In fact, it was his legal right.
While I worked “unofficially” with Juan at lunch, recess, and after school, he was officially graded by the other special educator in our school, who I’ll call Ms. James. She quickly grew tired of Juan’s defiant behavior. Rather than reaching out to others for assistance, she just stopped giving him specialized reading and math instruction. Several of my colleagues questioned why Juan was no longer receiving services, but the school lacked a cohesive, collaborative culture necessary to get the answers they were looking for. The teachers assumed it was just the way things had worked out.
Soon after, Juan’s mother was called into school for a meeting with Ms. James. Juan’s mother spoke very little English, but no translator had been called. Legal documents, written in English, had been prepared to remove Juan from special education. This would apply not only to the remainder of his sixth grade year but through high school.
I asked Ms. James to stop the meeting, pointing out that we could not legally proceed without a translator, the special education chairperson and Juan’s teachers. Knowing the huge implications that this would have for Juan, and knowing the rights of my students, I sought out the help of the principal and the school translator. A meeting was planned so that we could ensure that Juan would get all the support he needed for the remainder of the year and as he transitioned to 7th grade. It was a difficult choice to confront my colleague but I had to stand up for this child, no matter the cost.
Teachers are unique individuals like everyone else and we often have different interpretations of our students’ needs. Sometimes we get it wrong. It can be challenging to disagree with a colleague about a chosen course of action for a particular student, but—as I learned with Juan—we have to build the capacity to do this, while at the same time training students and parents to advocate on their own behalf, as well.
While advocacy is not always easy, in this case it was the right choice, legally and personally. But the experience also made me acutely aware of the need for advocacy training for educators, parents of students with disabilities, and children with disabilities themselves.
School culture also contributes to our ability to advocate effectively. Sometimes teachers need to challenge each other, to speak up for our own interpretation of what’s best for our students. More collaborative school environments—where disagreement is considered a safe professional practice—help us to serve our students.
Today, Juan continues to receive special education services, and as a high school student he is able to attend classes with smaller teacher-to-student ratios to foster his academic growth. Seeing Juan grow and learn over the years has continued to support my belief that it is critical for teachers to be empowered advocates, and for school environments to foster the ability of teachers, parents and students to fight for students’ legal right to equal educational opportunities