VALIDATING YOUR IEP DOCUMENT (when computer programs usurp the human aspect of student meetings) By John Watts

 

“Is your document validated?”

That one little question conjures up an aspect of my time in special education in Fairfax County public schools that I am very glad to put behind me in the private school world I currently call my employment.

In fact, that entire “DOCUMENT VALIDATING” notion seems very surreal looking back now; making me wonder sometimes if the whole thing ever really happened as being such a critical aspect of my official job description.  Of course, I know better, after having hop scotched between private and public special ed. schools for so many years–IEP meeting protocol has as many manifestations for how to be run as there are counties in the USA—despite the landmark legislation mandates.

First, I guess I should explain what document validation means.

It meant as a teacher, (turned in to Case Manager) that I had to sit at the conference table with my laptop on and be the official recorder—fingers at the ready with the IEP document on the overhead screen to be discussed LIVE with all the other meeting members.

It meant, that every cell, every line, every section–of the document, had to be deemed flawless, from a technical error standpoint by the robotic brain of the computer program.  This approach further changed my teaching role from case manager to computer dictator—as in taking dictation.

And you could get no closure until all sections worked together in a symphonic whole at the end.

And therefore, all the anxiety, all the effort, all the momentum, is completely focused on the legalistic, clerical duties of using the computer program correctly while you GINGERLY navigate and pray for a 100% correct document at the very end, so the meeting can be officially closed off.

Because if you find errors, some discrepancy that results in a PINKED-out section to be corrected—the IEP document cannot be printed—even if everyone agrees on every word and all goals and plans are harmonious and a no brainer.  Even if there appears to be no error and the mistake is only some technical program glitch.

And this incomplete IEP would be a major headache to all stakeholders concerned.

But in hindsight, as a writer and educator, I must say, this VALIDATION process for the document was the perfectly apt symbol for a school and a system, that rarely validated me or cared about empowering its teachers with any real stamp of approval or appreciation.

In fact, it constituted the perfect irony.

Because the special education department that I worked in, inside of the much larger regular education high school, operated and conducted itself mostly like it was a legal document—making it much more like working at a bank than it was a place to teach.

It was all about serving on committees, knowing how the system worked, and enforcing discipline.

And mainly, not causing any ripples.

Even at the cost of having every attempted “ripple effect of kindness” go unnoticed and better off squelching–for fear of not being best for job security.

No one serving above me every bothered to validate the actual creative aspect of the teaching.  The interactive, meaningful progress part of the equation was reduced to the point of being incidental and almost irrelevant.

In such a system, whoever was the most respected and had the most authority were the ones that mattered.  Whoever could muster the most leverage.

Especially if that faculty member could be off-putting, sold themselves well, and could operate all the in-vogue computer programs in the school.

In fact, being able to train others and be the LEADER in technical computer prowess was by far the best, golden pathway towards professional advancement—to go from master teacher all the way to principal.

Everything that I prided myself on as a teacher, everything that made the job so sacred, was obscured inside a gigantic system of rotating classes, bell schedules, and earning credits for graduation.

I was the tiniest of worker ants, light years away from the varsity football coaches and the Glee Club President—lucky to draw a pay check and receive summers off–as I scurried about amongst the masses between classroom periods while striving to get my coffee in the faculty lounge during my free time.

And that annual IEP meeting epitomized the alienation perfectly.  I rarely knew the students I was case managing.  I was glued to my lap top with white knuckles, fearful of accruing errors in the IEP document and typing at too slow a clip to keep up with those talking through the outline of the meeting.

The only person that mattered, besides the parent and the student, was the charmed faculty member who could explain the pathway to graduation for the kid—how many credits were needed and which electives to take.

No collaboration required.  No humor was helpful.  No insights from the classroom.  None of that serves as any collateral.

Just VALIDATE that precious IEP document.

And then we can all go home.

And in my experience, the difference between new schools and older, more established schools is often very dramatic.  Newer, smaller schools are great breeding grounds for nurturing the unbridled brilliance and strength that various teachers demonstrate.  While, given time and committees, that originality and passion can become dulled and diminished as more guidelines are established and educators become fit into the same boxes.  Such evaluation systems suck out much of the inspiration while overcrowding the job description with more frequent, mandatory paperwork deadlines to feel important.

The work culture becomes sanitized and standardized.  The inspiration becomes expected.

So, let’s return to the LIVE IEP I described with the overhead screen hooked to my laptop.

All eyes turn to me as case manager on the keyboard.  If I goofed up, then I would feel the guilt and shame of holding up the parents and delaying all the faculty members.  Colleagues that liked to be condescending and capitalize on the situation could score points in a flash by saying, “why don’t you do this instead?”

The lesson learned from these IEP validating meetings?

It’s not about rapport.  You only need to get along with the powers that be.

It’s not about talent or creativity.  All that can be manipulated and exploited.

It’s all about politics and perception.

And who can be poised and competent enough as a scribe on the lap top to close out the meeting by VALIDATING the blessed IEP document!

Hold on to your job anyway you can.  Because you certainly aren’t going to find true validation in this type of setting.

This is a business after all.  Let the kids have accommodations.

The staff must fend for themselves.

 

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About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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