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Advice for Teachers: IEP Meetings

Meghan Mathis

 

When many of us were going to school to pursue education, we imagined what teaching would be like. We imagined our classrooms, full of interactive whiteboards and engaging activities that would simultaneously welcome and ignite curiosity our students.  We imagined ourselves with our students, forming relationships with each young person we encountered, that they would remember for the rest of their lives.

We would be the people they remembered for the rest of their lives as the one that believed in them, encouraged them, inspired them to reach for their dreams.

We may have even imagined the friendships we would form with our fellow teachers and administrators as we worked together to create a successful and positive learning environment.  Most of us, however, did not imagine IEP meetings and other meetings about the students we teach. 

We did not imagine how much time we would spend in conference rooms with other regular and special education teachers, with school counselors and psychologists.  We did not picture ourselves sitting across from our students, their parents and their advocates.  We didn’t run through scenarios that come up in these meetings.  Angry parents, defensive teachers, and questions that we may not have the answers for all can catch us off guard and make these types of meetings very nervewracking.  Today’s Ask Gemma questions all come from teachers who have issues related to meetings about our students.

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Dear Gemma,

This is my first year teaching. The Special Education teacher in our building has asked me to attend an IEP meeting for one of my students but I am terrified. I have no idea what to say about the student.  I worry that I’m going to be yelled at for not following the student’s IEP correctly even though I think I have been. I want to tell the teacher that I can’t make it, but I know that’s wrong. What should I do? 

- IEP Intimidated in Jacksonville

Dear IEP Intimidated,

First, you should know that many teachers feel nervous about attending IEP meetings whether they’ve been teaching for one year or 20! It can be intimidating to walk into a room and discuss what goes on in your classroom and whether or not what you are doing is helping a child be successful or not! That being said, there is no reason why you should feel too intimidated to attend. You are an integral part of that student’s educational team and you need to be there to provide your input to what would help that student experience success. 

To reduce any anxiety, ask the special education teacher what she would like you to discuss at the meeting.  She will let you know if it is a normal meeting to discuss the student’s progress or if you have to be aware of any issues or problems that may be discussed. 

If it is a regular, annual IEP meeting, you’ll be with the student’s parent(s), the special education teacher, your principal (or another administrator), and you could also see the student, the school guidance counselor, psychologist, other regular education teachers, nurse, and possibly representatives from outside agencies as well.

Your part in this meeting will be to report on how the child is progressing in your classroom, what they are doing well and what they are finding challenging, what their current grade is (broken down so you can discuss classwork, homework, projects, and quizzes and tests separately), as well as if you have any ideas about how to help the student.

It’s possible that you could give a brief summary of how the student is doing in your class and then be allowed to return to your classroom, but it is equally likely that you’ll be expected to stay for the entire meeting, so be prepared for both possibilities. If it is a meeting to discuss problems that the student is having, concerns the parent(s) have, or other issues, the special education teacher should brief you on what to expect and what you should be prepared to discuss when you arrive at the meeting. If she doesn’t, just ask! It can be intimidating to walk in to these meetings, but with a little bit of prep work in advance, you will be more than ready to participate with ease!

Dear Gemma,

I recently observed something in a meeting about a student I had never witnessed before and it stunned me.  While discussing an emotionally disturbed student who had recently been suspended for fighting, our school psychologist read information that she thought showed that the emotional support teacher hadn’t followed the student’s behavior plan properly.

When the parent left the meeting, she turned to the teacher and shouted at him, “WE ARE IN DEEP SH*T NOW BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T DO YOUR JOB!” The special education teacher in the meeting explained that the emotional support teacher actually had been doing his job, and that the psychologist had misunderstood, but once she realized her mistake, she never apologized for her outburst! I don’t really feel comfortable working with this person anymore after seeing her go after a teacher in this fashion. What should I do?

- Astounded in Astoria

Dear Astoria,

Wow! That must have been a truly uncomfortable meeting to sit through! It stinks when our colleagues forget that they are interacting with other professionals (and human beings!) and that no one deserves to be spoken to in that way, whether the teacher in question had made the error or not.  While I’m not going to defend a psychologist yelling at a teacher for any reason, I will say that it sounds like the psychologist might be very stressed about the idea that the district could be found negligent in following the student’s IEP.

Teachers often have no clue whether or not their district is going through due process hearings or other legal disputes regarding students with IEPs unless they are directly involved in the case, but a school psychologist is often involved in all of the legal disputes a district is involved in.

It’s possible that your school psychologist acted unprofessionally because she realized how dangerous a mistake like that would be. Again, it doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it is important for teachers to realize that often a school district is involved in many difficult legal battles because of simple mistakes made by teachers acting with the best of intentions. 

If you truly feel that something must be said, I would recommend that you go to an administrator whom you trust and let them know what happened. Express that you felt uncomfortable by the lack of professionalism demonstrated in the meeting. If it was the first outburst this colleague has ever had, not much might come of your concern, but if this person has a history inappropriate remarks, it might be enough to have an administrator speak with her about how she communicates during meetings.

Finally, one of the best things you can do is prepare yourself for the next time you have to participate in a meeting with your school psychologist. Make sure you are comfortable with the information you are bringing to the meeting so you don’t worry that her negative attention comes your way.

If you feel comfortable, think about being ready with a statement that may calm down the room if things begin to get heated. Something as simple as, “You know what?  This is a really tough job and I think we should all just take a breath and remember that we’re all on the same team and that we are trying our best for our students before we continue.” That might be enough to help your school psychologist remember she’s dealing with another person with feelings.