Several years ago, I was cross-examining a teacher in a Due Process Hearing. It was a pretty hotly contested case, and we were several days into testimony. The student (my client) had severe dyslexia, which had been identified fairly early into her education. Unfortunately, the interventions provided by the school district had been pretty ineffective. When I was hired, she had reached middle school, was still not reading fluently, and she was simply not equipped to handle the largely mainstream program the school district had recommended.
All of the credible evidence in the case, including even the school district’s own testing, demonstrated that the child required a far more intensive program than was being offered.
By the time the special education teacher had been called to testify, the writing was pretty much on the wall. I believe even the school district’s attorney knew that the case was not going their way. For this reason, if no other, I really almost felt badly for the teacher, who was being given the impossible task of resurrecting a pretty horrible case on the school district’s behalf.
Even worse for her, this was a new teacher. She wasn’t tenured, and she didn’t have a lot of experience.
Obviously, this didn’t help the school district’s case, since it was evident from the record that the student’s special education needs were great. In fact, the district had tried to explain the student’s well-documented lack of progress by focusing on how severe her dyslexia was. But this only invited the question: “why would a school district assign one of its most challenged and complicated students to a brand new teacher?” Having the newbie teacher take the stand only underscored the fact that the program was inappropriate.
Of course, the teacher hadn’t assigned HERSELF to the case; that was the decision of the administration.
And yet, who was the person the school district called to the “hot seat” to testify? The special education director, who’d made this horrible decision? No. The Board’s attorney presented instead the new teacher, who had virtually no experience actually teaching kids with disabilities, let alone having to defend herself in a legal proceeding about it.
Not long into my cross-examination, it became quite clear that she knew very little about my client, or dyslexia for that matter.
And then she started to cry. Now, despite my passion for the rights of kids with special needs, and my sometimes tough demeanor, I really don’t enjoy making people cry. Especially nice, wide-eyed new teachers who think they’ve taken on the greatest job in the world because they are going to shape our future. If I’m going to make someone cry on the stand, I’d much prefer it be a seasoned, lying, mean-spirited administrator. That I don’t mind. But a brand-spanking-new teacher who was given zero support to educate a student with complex needs? Not so much.
The crying itself was awkward for all, but it certainly wasn’t the first (or last) time I’d made a witness cry. What was really memorable was what the teacher said after she was done crying.
“They should tell you this is part of the job,” she said. “They should tell you when you go to school to become a teacher that being a witness in Hearings like this is part of the job!”
And you know what? She was right. 100% right! Colleges and universities SHOULD tell teachers that knowing the rights of kids with disabilities is part of the job. It should be part of their training to become a public school teacher. For teachers who went to school before knowing the school district’s legal obligations to children with disabilities was necessary to perform the job, the school should be providing them ongoing training. Further, responsible Board attorneys should be providing “in-service” training to special and regular educators as part of their representation, instead of simply coming in after mistakes have already been made.
It is rarely the teachers who actually work with kids with disabilities who make the decisions about what they will be provided.
But they may have to defend those decisions anyway.