Special Education Opinion

I’m The ‘I’ in IEP, But I Need My Teachers, Too

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 11, 2017 4 min read
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Jacob Lewis is our guest blogger today. He is a 15 year old self-advocating, high school student, an award-winning photographer and is working to quietly disrupt education by putting the “I” back in IEP.

One of my earliest school memories is from the third grade. I call it ‘The Kickball Incident’ and I still remember it like it was yesterday, not the seven years ago it really was.

I have an autism spectrum disorder (at the time my diagnosis was Asperger syndrome). One of the things I have trouble with is understanding things when there’s no logical explanation given or when someone repeats themselves instead of trying to explain in a different way.

On that day, most of the class was playing kickball, so I decided to join in. I asked my friend if I could have a turn pitching. He agreed and passed the ball to me. But I didn’t get a chance to play because my teacher yelled at me to give the ball back.

When I asked her why I had to give it back, she just repeated that I had to. She continued to use the same words over and over again. When I tried to explain that he was letting me have the ball, she didn’t acknowledge me or my lack of understanding. I got overwhelmed and got stuck in a loop, insisting on an answer.

She told me to go sit against the wall for not following her instructions and I started to cry. People who know me realize that this is a big deal. I don’t cry often and when I do, it’s an indication that I’m frustrated. In this situation, I felt frustrated, confused and misunderstood.

Looking back, this was a breaking point. I was really smart and did well academically, so I didn’t have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, even though that shouldn’t have been a barrier to having one. My teachers didn’t trust me or understand why such a smart kid had issues with what, to them, seemed like simple things.

They thought that I was trying to create fights and that my meltdowns were tantrums. They thought I wasn’t trying hard enough and was being disruptive. None of that was true, but without an IEP to help them understand that--and me--I had no way of making them get that.

Throughout my years as a student, I have dealt with other situations like ‘The Kickball Incident’ that stem from communication challenges between me and my teachers. Things are different now that I have both an IEP and teachers who understand me better, but it was an arduous process to get here and a continual one to stay here. An IEP helps teachers understand my frustration, trouble with self-regulation, and allows me to work with them to find other ways to express myself.

Of course there is no magic fix to such disconnects, but I do have a few things that have helped me along the way. If teachers knew what kids like me need from them, more students would benefit from it then they might think. Here’s what I want them to know:

  1. If a student says he doesn’t understand something, he probably means it. I may be capable of doing all my schoolwork, but just like everyone else, I struggle with grasping concepts or interpreting instructions. Sometimes listening to your student explain what he is having difficulty with and then giving the instructions in a different way is all it takes. Some of the best teachers I’ve had have provided assistance after listening to me elaborate on how an assignment seems vague or why I don’t think a question is posed the right way.
  2. If you don’t understand a student, find a go-between. Sometimes you may find it hard to work with and understand a student. It happens and I wish teachers could feel comfortable being honest about it. It’s no different than me saying I don’t understand something. To help, find another teacher or administrator who has a unique perspective on the student. By collaborating with a go-between when you have trouble with a student, you can find another way to get how and why he’s struggling. I personally have had this role fulfilled by various people over the years--my assistant principal, my IEP case manager and other teachers.
  3. Allow room for creativity. If you want a window into understanding your students, allow them to incorporate what they love into their schoolwork. My passion and talent is photography. I struggle to understand people and the “rules” of the world. From behind the camera, I have a different view. The rules of composition are logical--they don’t change and that makes sense to me. I can use that to show what I know and have learned in a way that’s easier for me. For instance, I have been allowed to create a video about a subject instead of a poster or essay. It meets the criteria for the project and creates a product that presents the material in an engaging manner that showcases my academic knowledge and my creativity.

Obviously, these aren’t the only things that you can do to help students like me. But it’s a good start. There are still times when I get frustrated and don’t accomplish what I should. Sometimes it’s my work or sometimes it’s getting along with people. That’s okay, too, because things don’t always work out perfectly all the time. What’s important is that students and teachers working together to find ways to make things go as smoothly as possible.

And if you don’t know what a student needs of you, just ask. They are more aware of their needs than you might think.

Jacob’s description of this photo: “I combined a couple long exposures of fire with a long exposure of garden lights.”

The two photos in this post were taken by Jacob and are used with his permission.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.