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Perspective | What my special needs child with the really big IEP has taught and retaught me as a teacher in this pandemic

I am the proud parent of two children. One is a highly intelligent and academically driven young lady who looks like her mother. The other one is what some in the educational field might call “special.”

He looks like his mother as well.

That child has Down Syndrome and is on the autism spectrum and needs modifications in school that help him to learn optimally.

As the older sister is busy trying to fulfill assignments through virtual instruction, preparing for altered AP exams, and beginning an awkward transition to what hopefully will be collegiate life, the younger brother is having to deal with a new reality that keeps him away from his friends at school and the designed routine of instruction.

And while I am a 22-year veteran public school teacher, the real teacher in this house for the past three weeks has been my special needs child with the really big IEP.

It actually was a month ago that my wife and I had the yearly IEP meeting for our son where we review goals, make new ones, modify accommodations, and have the honest discussion of expectations versus reality. We are blessed with his being at this public school with the teachers and assistants who help him access the curriculum, but always focus on him as an individual.

He has desperately missed being at school, as have I. But we are safe and healthy for right now and what he has taught and re-taught me these past few days has been immeasurable.

1. Education is about the people. If I could count the number of times he calls out names of teachers and classmates, then I would need to relearn big numbers. He misses them as much as I miss my students.

2. Special education teachers are the “salt of the Earth.” I knew this before, but I REALLY know it now. Their wanting to reach out to him at this time and provide any support whatsoever has been tremendous. Whether conferencing with us as parents or just reading a story with him online, his teachers have been tireless in offering their support.

3. Teacher assistants are just as vital as anyone else in the education of special needs students. We don’t have enough of them, and we don’t pay them enough.

4. No technology can replace the basic foundation of the student / teacher relationship. “Personalized” learning has the word “PERSON” in it for a reason.

5. We do not as a nation or a state invest enough in resources that special needs students require. Looking back over the Leandro report this past week about how we as a state fund special needs has given further clarity to this.

6. Moving around and getting exercise is key to learning. I truly appreciate the power of going into the backyard and swinging on the swing set can reengage someone’s mind. I am doing it myself.

7. Laughter is medicine. 

8. Lunch should never be less than 30 minutes. Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my son have been at the kitchen table.

9. Standardized tests really do not work. My son has proven over and over again that he never was standard, his teachers are not standard, and this current situation is not standard.

10. He really wants to learn, experience, interact, smile, and seek knowledge. We all do.

11. Patience. Can’t really explain that fully, but I have more of it right now than I did three weeks ago.

12. And… It is time to have a serious conversation about remote learning and the needs of kids with special needs at the local, state, and federal level.

Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.