How to Advocate for Your Students
Without Losing Your Job –
For Teachers Fighting the “Good Fight”

By Rick Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed.

January, 2009

Editor’s Note: The full-length version of this article first appeared in 2008 on the LD OnLine website (www.ldonline.org). It is excerpted here with the author’s permission. Although the following article was written specifically for special education teachers, it offers recommendations and provides insights to all teachers who work with high ability students who have learning or attention challenges. 


In a perfect world, no teacher should be criticized for defending, protecting, or advocating for a child. But, the world is imperfect, and teachers often find that they are asked to compromise students’ services in order to maintain budgets and other real-world constraints. Teachers face this conundrum daily. Their allegiances are torn: How do I meet the needs of my students while also being a loyal, responsible, and responsive school employee?

So, what can the teacher do? For your consideration, I offer some basic suggestions for the teacher who attempts to juggle her commitment to kids along with the realities of today’s school workplace.

The underlying theme of these suggestions is that schools are political. In order for your voice to be heard and your advocacy to be effective, you must play and win the “political game” in the hallways, the teachers’ lounge, and the administrative suite.

  • Understand that the principal is the key player in this drama. You must have the loyalty, support, faith, and cooperation of your principal in order to advocate effectively.
  • If you are a new teacher, find a mentor in the school. Find a successful, respected teacher in your building and become her protégé. She can provide you with invaluable counsel and advice.
  • Ingratiate yourself to colleagues in all departments and at all levels. It does, indeed, take a village to raise a child and you will need all the teachers, secretaries, custodians, lunch ladies, and ancillary staff in order to assist you in your advocacy. Write thank-you notes. Be polite. Show interest. Be kind. Don't complain. Share ideas and materials. Compliment. Support. Smile.
  • Get out of the special education classroom on a regular basis. Become an integral part of the school community.
  • Get involved in staff development and in-service programs. Promote the idea of using these programs as vehicles to educate and sensitize your colleagues to the unique needs of students with learning disabilities.
  • Promote the concept of Universal Design that holds that special education strategies are effective with all kids! If a teacher learns a few “special ed” techniques to use with the child with LD in her class, she can also use those strategies with her “best and brightest” student who may be unable to understand a specific concept. Remind your colleagues that special education is simply really good education.
  • Organize and participate in teacher assistance teams. This innovative, transdisciplinary approach consists of teachers and support staff who voluntarily gather on occasion in an informal setting. One of the team members presents a brief outline of a difficulty that she is having with a particular student. The group then brainstorms various suggestions and solutions. This strategy is often used in business or medical settings with great success.
  • Be positive and upbeat about your special education students. If you constantly vent (loudly and publicly) about how difficult, complex, and challenging these kids can be, your colleagues will be less willing to work with them. Give your kids good, positive, constructive PR.
  • Propose a study group or Great Books Club where you and your colleagues read and discuss an educational book. Brainstorm ways that the author's concepts can be used in your school.
  • If you are frustrated or troubled by a colleague, take care not to communicate your feelings to parents or students. Nobody wins in that type of conflict. It is unprofessional and unfair to undermine a colleague's authority or reputation.
  • Observe your colleagues in their classrooms and encourage them to visit your class, as well. Learn from one another.
  • Volunteer for committees and assist with school functions and events. If you help the yearbook advisor design the layout, he will be more likely to assist "your" special education students who are assigned to his English class. Again, schools are political: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
  • Deal with conflict effectively. Recognize that, in the overwhelming majority of conflicts, no party is all wrong (or all right!). Try to see all sides of an issue. Adult conflicts tend to, eventually, affect the child. 
  • Avoid negativity and do not get involved in the negative teacher cliques that are common in schools. These destructive groups will often try to sabotage the administration's goals and plans. Be cordial with these folks, but don't allow them to sap your energy or enthusiasm.
  • Don't get involved in gossip or destructive rumor-spreading. If you hear a troubling rumor, go directly to the principal to request clarification or confirmation.

Why do Systems Place Obstacles in the Way of Student Services?

When advocating for students, you will confront common obstacles and objections from your colleagues. This does not necessarily reflect that they are insensitive or uncaring. Rather, their objections are often rooted in the reality that available time, energy, and resources are limited. Every established organization has a tendency to resist change and defend the status quo… even if the status quo is not working!

I recall a teacher once entering my office and saying, “I have kept Joshua in for recess for 15 days in a row and he still isn’t doing his math homework!” Well, let’s circle the “slow learner” in this picture – It ain’t working!!!

In their brilliant and groundbreaking book, From Emotions to Advocacy, Pete and Pam Wright [See also the sidebar below.] outline the most common objections confronted by those who advocate for special needs students:

  1. Insistence on adhering to longstanding policies and procedures (We’ve always done it this way.)
  2. Resistance to making exceptions (If we do this for Allison, we will have to do it for everyone.)
  3. Resistance to setting a precedent (This will open the floodgates and all the parents will want these services.)
  4. Insufficient training (Our teachers don’t know how to do that.)
  5. Insufficient staff (We simply don’t have enough people to do this.)
  6. Unavailability of services (Our school doesn’t do that. We never have!)
  7. Commitment to a one-size-fits-all approach (All of our students with LD use this reading system.)
  8. Insufficient funds (That would cost too much. We don’t have the money.)
  9. Overwhelmed (We’ve never seen a kid with such complex needs before.)
  10. Lack of understanding of legal aspects (Even if the law requires it, we can’t do it.

Although these objections are understandable from the other person’s perspective, all of them are contrary to the letter and spirit of current special education law. You should prepare effective, accurate, and appropriate responses to each before you approach the powers-that-be with your proposals.

Getting the Support of Your Principal

As an advocate, your key and indispensable ally is the building principal. No matter how talented or devoted the faculty is, no matter how powerful or influential the parent body is, no matter how committed the school board is, the child will not get responsive, effective services unless he has the support of the person in the principal’s office.

A landmark study of management styles of principals rendered the following profound results: “We found some bad schools with a good principal… but we found no good schools with a bad principal.”

However, research indicates that many principals hold very negative feelings about special education and may view these students as a “drain” on a system that is already strained to the breaking point. In order to effectively advocate for children with special needs, and in order to be a “shepherd of change” in the school, the principal must understand and embrace ten basic concepts.

  1. Change is a process, not an event.
  2. Change requires intense preparation.
  3. In order for organizations to change, individuals must change.
  4. Change generally occurs from the top down.
  5. Mandates do not make change work; only a sound, supportive process makes change effective.
  6. Change will be effective only if accompanied by support.
  7. Under legislative guidelines, students are entitled to services. You are not “doing the family a favor” by creating and implementing responsive programs. You are just doing your job.
  8. Each child is an individual and must be viewed as such. There is no one, solitary program or approach that works effectively with all kids, even if they have the same diagnosis or label. If the child can’t learn the way we teach, we need to teach the way he learns.
  9. Special education is not a place or a program. Rather, it is a flexible set of services and supports.
  10. Effective special education services do not exist in a vacuum. Neither do they exist detached from the general program. They must be an integral and important part of the school-wide culture.

The key to dealing effectively with your principal or supervisor is to view situations and issues from the principal’s perspective. I learned two important life lessons from two unlikely sources: a former boss and a U.S. President.

When I was appointed headmaster at a residential school on Cape Cod, I had a meeting with the chairman of the school’s board. He provided me with some significant and valuable advice at our initial meeting: “Run this school in the way you think is best. I will not interfere. But don’t ever let me be surprised.”

Always keep your superiors informed. Don’t wait until small problems grow into a crisis. If a child or a parent is having difficulty, mention it to the principal. In this way, she won’t feel blindsided if the problem does become critical.

The second lesson came from Ronald Reagan. Prior to his presidency, Reagan honed his daily management skills as governor of California. He continually reminded his staff, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” This approach will greatly enhance your effectiveness with your principal. All day long, people enter the office and present problems, challenges, difficulties, conundrums, and crises. What a refreshing change to have someone offer solutions!

Some other “Principal Pleasing Tips”

  • Share good news with your principal occasionally. Don't go to her office only when you have a problem or a request, or soon she will dread seeing you. Stop by to share good news about your students or colleagues.
  • Don't overuse the principal for discipline problems. Try to handle most disruptive behavior on your own. If you don't, you begin to develop a reputation among your students that you have a very limited repertoire for dealing with disruptive behavior, and they will continually push you to the edge with ever-escalating behavior difficulties. 
  • You will impress your principal – and make him your ally – if you "play by the rules." Be punctual. Submit paperwork on time. Stick to the schedule. Be positive. Volunteer.
  • A hint: Most principals work during the summer months. Visit the school and spend some time with her. Ask if you can help in any way. The summer is a great opportunity to build and enhance your relationship with her.

Conclusion

In summary, if you wish to be an effective advocate for your students, remember the eleven P’s that will enable you to enhance your cooperation and collaboration with your colleagues. 

  1. Principal: Gain the support of your school’s leader.

  2. Problem Solver: Be viewed by your colleagues as a person who solves problems, rather than causes them.

  3. Planning: Have specific, observable, understandable goals for each student.

  4. Practical: Provide your colleagues with suggestions and solutions that are pragmatic and workable. Consider their time and energy constraints.

  5. Participate: Be an active, contributing member of the school community.

  6. Passion: Share your passion with your colleagues.

  7. Positive: Try to remain positive when dealing with colleagues.

  8. Potential: Be ever mindful of the potential of your students.
  9. “Polish the Apple”: Give compliments and praise willingly and often.
  10. Prepare: Always have evidence and data to support your suggestions.
  11. Pray: It couldn’t hurt…and it just might help.

But the most important P is Protect. It is your sacred duty to protect all students from harm, humiliation, or hurt. You simply cannot stand by and watch when a student suffers. As Dante reminds us: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for good people who – in times of moral crisis  – choose to do nothing.”

Lavoie on Why Kids Fail

The Wrights cite an eye-opening 2001 study conducted by Galen Alessi. She reviewed 5,000 evaluations written by school psychologists in order to determine the factors the psychologists felt were contributing to the child’s failure/frustration in school. She listed five factors that are widely accepted as reasons why kids fail in school:

  • Inappropriate curriculum
  • Ineffective teaching
  • Ineffective school management practices
  • Inadequate family support
  • Child-based problems/disabilities.

Her review found that in 5,000 reports, the five factors were cited in the following manner as primary causes for the child's failure. When in doubt, blame the victim!

  • Inappropriate curriculum: 0%
  • Ineffective teaching: 0%
  • Ineffective school management practices: 0%
  • Inadequate family support: 20%
  • Child-based problems/disabilities: 100%.

[For more information on Peter and Pam Wright and their website, see the June, 2004, issue of 2e Newsletter.]

Rick Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed., is an author, speaker, former teacher and administrator, and learning disabilities consultant. In addition, he is a columnist for the website LD OnLine. For more information, visit his website: www.ricklavoie.com. 

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