Try Walking in a Teacher’s Shoes

Teachers struggle with IEPs, too

Jen Stevenson is a Special Education Teacher Consultant for TDSB and a big part of her role is to help teachers, parents, principals with their IEPs. I have asked her what are the main barriers that teachers have to overcome when they deal with students that need an Individual Education Plan. Here is what she said:

“The first thing that comes to mind is that teachers do not automatically receive training on how to write an IEP.  If they are interested in paying $650 to take a 120 hour special education additional qualification course they will learn about IEPs there.  But there is very little training available for teachers aside from the extra courses. Teachers are provided with a document from the Ministry of Education and are expected to know how to complete an IEP with no further training.  It’s very challenging. And a big challenge is implementing the goals in the IEP.  It is one thing list accommodations such as “teacher will scribe for student”.  But how does a teacher make sure he/she is able to do that in practice? Building an IEP is one challenge. But then implementing a daily classroom routine that allows one teacher to effectively teach 30 kids in the class while still meeting the goals in some of the IEPs is another challenge.  So, the second challenge is in training teachers to run programs that allow them to differentiate their instruction. But how do teachers assess if this is working or not?  When is there time for frequent progress monitoring? That’s why sometimes they are not progressing.  It’s not uncommon to see the goals stay relatively the same year after year.  They move into the next grade, but their IEP continues to focus on the same learning goals. Large class sizes are a barrier to implementing IEP goals well, monitoring progress, and moving the child ahead.

How many students with IEP are typically in a class? Is there a certain number they can’t go over?

There is no maximum number for IEPs.   When I thought grade 4/5 I had 30 kids.  12 of them were on IEPs. My son is in grade 1, at least 5 kids in his class have IEPs. I’ve worked with teachers who have more than 12 IEPs in their classes. Special Education classes are full of kids who have IEPs.   I’ve taught in Special education classes of 12 kids with intensive needs, and all 12 have a very detailed IEP

Part of the solution also lies in being open to inclusive practices.  Some kids are in IEPs unnecessarily. When a child had significant needs, Yes, they require an IEP. But when a child requires things like a quiet work space, extra time for a test, instructions written in step by step lists.  These are just basic human needs and should not require an IEP. School boards need to move away from the thinking that “if I do something different for Johnny that’s not fair, unless of course, he’s on an IEP”.

Putting different strategies in place for different kids is just good teaching practice. If more school boards embraced that way of thinking we would have fewer IEPs but more successful kids.So a barrier related to IEPs is the fixed mindset that if we change our expectations for one child we have to put him on an IEP. IEPs should be reserved for high needs kids.  And the kids who just need extra supportive strategies should just get them without requiring a process or paperwork.

Who supports children with IEPs on a regular basis? 

Most school boards have support staff (Educational Assistants) for kids who have extreme safety concerns.  My board does not provide Educational Assistants for academic support.  So kids who simply have academic needs (without aggression or personal safety or personal care needs) don’t typically get extra support from an Educational Assistants. Many schools only have 2-3 Educational Assistants who float around the school to support a number of kids. Some kids with intensive needs for support are offered specialized programs.  Or have access to a Special Education Teacher who may withdraw them from class for extra help, or come into their classroom for extra support for a few periods per week.

How do teachers cope with that?

How do we cope??  2 words.  Summers Off. A lot of people think summer off is this crazy luxury.  It certainly is a luxury, but in today’s teaching climate it is also necessary for mental health, teachers are absolutely burnt out by June.

What happens when children go from elementary school to middle school, what changes?

In elementary school (K-8) teachers have the flexibility of modifying curriculum.  So you can have a grade 6 student working on grade 4 level work in the classroom.  You just change the expectations and they work at a different level.  A basic example would be that they do single digit multiplication problems while the other kids work on double digit.  But secondary school is an accredited system.  Meaning, you have to meet the expectations in order to get the credit.   If a student in grade 10 can’t do most of the work at the grade 10 level, they can’t get the credit.  Because it’s regulated.  Does that make sense?  They have to meet the criteria for the course in order to get the diploma.  A student who functions at a grade 9 level cannot receive a high school diploma. To do so would be compromising the integrity of the diploma and would minimize it to a meaningless piece of paper.   So, because it’s an accredited system high school teachers are limited in how much they can modify the content or reduce the work load.  Some students can earn “certificates of completion” or “certificate of attendance” if they can’t reach the expectations to receive a diploma. Additionally, elementary school teachers have their students for most of the day.  So, in the case of a child who has ASD they often have non-academic goals in their IEP.  For social skills, organization skills and self regulation, for example.  Being with the kids all day, the elementary teacher can implement some strategies to support these pieces.  Extra time to get organized, opportunities to work with a partner, etc.

But in secondary school the students have a different teacher for each subject.  So the challenge becomes how is a history teacher supposed to implement strategies to support social skills when they only see that student for 1 period per day?   And further, when a high school teacher only sees a student for 1 period per day, how are they able to follow some of the accommodations? For example, if I’m a high school English teacher I see the student for 1 sixty minute period per day. So the challenge becomes how is a history teacher supposed to implement strategies to support social skills when they only see that student for 1 period per day?   And further, when a high school teacher only sees a student for 1 period per day, how are they able to follow some of the accommodations?

For example, if I’m a high school English teacher I see the student for 1 sixty minute period per day.  After that 60 minutes is up, that student moves into their next class and a new group of students comes in for their English class.  So even finding the time to give a student extra time in a test for example is difficult. High school teachers have hundreds of students in a day.  An English teacher has 30-35 kids in a class.  And rotates a new class of 30-35 kids every period.  For five periods per day.   So, it’s very possible that they haven’t even seen the student’s IEP. When a teacher sees 175 students in a day it’s near impossible for them to know what is written on each IEP

So in a nutshell, that’s what happens in high school. Spec Ed in elementary school can be well supported.   But high school is like the real world.  If you can’t do the job, you don’t get the paycheque kind of thing.  If you can’t pass the exams, you don’t get the credit.  There’s very little flexibility. The options for many special education students are trade schools.  Where they get credits in cooking, wood working, technology.  More applied subjects.   There are specific high schools that offer these types of applied programs. And job co-op credits.   It’s very possible for a special education student to graduate high school.  But very well planned choices need to be made before high school so that they are set up for success. And for kids who just need more time there are options.  Instead of taking 4 credits per term they can take 3 classes, and be offered a 4th period in a resource study room.  It just means they spend one more year in high school to make up for the credits they didn’t get in the first 4 years. But again, planning ahead is key. So one thing that can be done is better transition planning and support for parents and kids so that they can make the right decisions for high school.  Grade 7 and 8 is the time for that.  Guidance teachers and Vice Principals play an important role in that part.  Unfortunately, guidance teachers are really cut back due to funding cuts.  Many middle schools don’t have a full time guidance teacher.

There is an equity piece here too.  Parents who understand the system, who have education and are English speakers and are able to advocate for their kids are usually more informed.  Parents who are new to Canada, new to our education system, encounter a language barrier, don’t have access to the internet to do their research or are not able to attend meetings because they work 2 jobs for example are often not aware of what they can do to plan for their child. This equity piece is another barrier.

Every middle school does high school info nights.  Often they start in October.  It’s important that parents attend.  Every school also does “grade 8 review meetings” with parents and guidance counsellors.  These often take place in Dec/Jan.   So when parents are engaged actively in communication with the school they are more informed.  Parents who don’t check the school website and don’t make an effort to get to these meetings are not accessing the info they need to make informed decisions for secondary school. A lot of the onus is on the parent to get into the school in grade 8 and start these conversations.  But there are barriers for some families and more solutions to this are needed.”

Although IEPs are not the easiest tool, teachers do consider them very useful for their students evolutions. 

Adrian Pora, Visual Arts & Technology teacher, OCT

“As a teacher, I consider IEP’s an important tool in developing my teaching strategies for my students. I’ve successfully used IEP’s for many years and always found them very accurate and professionally structured. I strongly support the IEP practice and I consider very them important in order to better support our students’ learning. I work as a teacher involved daily in special education, tailoring my teaching strategies for different “learning styles”, and I consider IEP a cornerstone of my teaching practice. During the years I have had the chance to work with different groups of students from contained classes and integrated spec-ed. students on IEP; and I have had the chance to see their evolution from middle school to high school, or some of them to university or college, all of my students have truly benefited from the IEP’s implementation.”

Tracey Grenfell is a contained spec ed Kids in grade 3-5 with specific LDs

“An IEP can be for a student who is identified or non-identified. We are required by law to write the IEP for a student identified with spec needs.  The teacher differentiates the learning for the student so the child can access the curriculum at their level. If a child is working at a lower grade level in math, for example, change the numbers in the word problem to numbers the child can use.  For someone who is an experienced teacher, having special education students in the class shouldn’t be more work. It takes creativity, ingenuity and passion to custom tailor a learning program for a child. Sometimes you have to work with others (outside agencies, other teachers) to come up with learning goals.  Parents play a key role in being partners in the development of the document.”

Carry Kayton is also a Special Education Teacher. 

I’d say the largest barrier is getting teachers on board, having them understand the IEP, and having them implement it. It’s not that they don’t want to but teachers are overwhelmed, there is so much to do and it increases every year. My husband is also a teacher and he says that he doesn’t find IEPs easy to read, they make no sense, they are too complicated. He wants them to be more straightforward and easy to read. Just tell me what the kid needs, he said. He also doesn’t think they are realistic because when they go to high school they have to do high school work. Unless they are vocational they will be working at grade level. So to be 4 grades behind in gr 8 is a problem. IEPs and testing should be implemented early on. It takes too long to identify a kid. Like, grade 8 to identify a kid is way too long… Then the kid should get intensive help from an early age to close the gaps.  Instead, the gaps keep getting bigger because there isn’t enough support. I wish we had more money for spec ed. We could do so much. Smaller class sizes, more training for teachers, more spec ed teacher. When IEPs are implemented and followed they are amazing tools for kids. Strong teachers who know what they are doing really help those kids. We have amazing programs at school. “Empower” for example, can literally teach kids how to read. Leveled literacy intervention can bring C students to grade level. We have tons of resources. I am passionate about special  education … I stay up til 11 every night working, I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t care. There are lots of teachers like me who care. The ones who aren’t doing a great job often just don’t know any better. They need to be taught.”


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