As the parents of 2 specials needs children, my partner and I have had our share of run-ins with the public schools in our efforts to advocate for our children in the face of a system that is designed less to educate children than it is to provide underfunded and often low-quality daycare. As any parent of a child that has obstacles to thriving in the mainstream can tell you, it’s an exhausting, discouraging and often lonely uphill battle. And the face of the primary opponent, the smiling one across from the table from you in an IEP meeting, is usually that of your school principal.
I want to be sure to note, that my partner and I (and our sons) have been blessed to encounter some amazing teachers who work tirelessly within a system that undervalues and underpays them to provide a safe, appropriate, and fertile environment for our children. But we have yet to meet one school principal who we felt actually was on our side or had the best interests of our children (rather than their own agenda) at heart.
So after years of observation of this particularly political animal of the world of American public education, I have noted a few common traits and strategies that they all seem to possess or employ – a few simple rules, they all seem to follow.
- Treat all children the same! Uniformity is key! Remember it is not nearly so important to provide a free and appropriate education for each child (no matter what the individual differences in their abilities, challenges, learning styles, or circumstances), as it is to make sure they conform to the herd at all costs.
- Move them along! Differing rates of development, circumstances or intervening illnesses are not nearly so important as making sure that ALL STUDENTS move along in a timely manner from one grade to the next. Remember, the goal here is not to provide the student with the best chance of graduating. It’s to make sure they move on to the next school without delay so that they (and their loud-mouthed parents) will become another principal’s problems.
- Always listen politely to the parents! And then ignore their concerns and advice and make your own decisions based on political expediency and handy tools like standardized tests. (There is some leeway here for allowance for personal style. Some principals may choose to interrupt constantly with their own uninformed opinions in an effort to derail or distract the parent.) Whatever your personal style, though, remember that parents will constantly try to get you to break rules 1 and 2 by whining incessantly about their child’s “needs.” Be firm. Be resolute. And above all, when it comes time to make your decisions, ignore the parents.
- Strategy is important.Some of the more wily parents may persist in making nuisances of themselves in an effort to “advocate” for their child. In dealing with them, remember this simple three-part strategy:
- Make yourself as inaccessible as possible.Don’t return their phone calls or emails. When they ask for a meeting, make sure they are given a date and time at least 6 weeks out that conflicts with their work schedule.
- Patronize them.When they do somehow manage to get access to you, lead them to believe you are actually considering their input and educating yourself about your child and their issues. (See number 3.)
- Put them off for as long as possible. Wait to spring your decision on them at the last minute it so they have little time to respond or prepare their child. Just before the end of the school year or just before the beginning of a new year are particularly good times to spring unwelcome changes on a parent. The former has the advantage of the fact that you and most of your staff will shortly be unavailable for the duration of the summer and the latter will usually catch the most wily of parents off-guard.
5. You are a demi-god! Remember, you are a public school principal. Your word is law. In some school systems, there is no avenue of formal appeal open to the parent. But remember, ultimately, you are bluffing. If your problematic parent becomes angry enough, they may engage an attorney and your school system has no money for legal fees. (Fortunately, neither do many parents, so knowing their economic status may be a pretty good gauge of how far you can push them.)
So what do you think, parents?! I’d love to hear from you! Especially parents of any child who has special needs or circumstances (with or without an IEP). Have you ever been so angry with a school system or principal that you felt like vomiting? Stand up and be counted!