Celebrating Success With Our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part II

Hello again friends. We’re back with our second of three posts with the inspiring Diane Vigrass, our first Western New York Community Hero. In the last post, Diane, who is currently a Special Education Improvement Specialist at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, shared some wisdom about working with parents inside the special education system. In this post, we’re going to focus on her work with educators, particularly related to the difficulty in consistently applying critical thinking in our work and challenging our personal biases.

Jeanette: We were talking before about working with parents within the special education system. What about teachers?

Diane: Teachers must make sure those IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are showing benefit so that one year does not look like the next year. For example, I worked with a district that had a high school student still receiving special transportation on the IEP that was originated in the third grade. They just kept putting it in and putting it in. There was no indication that is was needed, so I asked, “Why does he still need this in the 9th grade?” Luckily, I got the right teacher at the right time. She was as flabbergasted as I was. She went all the way back to Transportation and had them look it up. It turns out this student had problems on the bus in that year, and since he was in special education, they got him his own transportation. And then no one ever reevaluated the need in the next six years!

Our goal in the ninth grade for this student was for more peer interaction, which he wasn’t going to get on the mini-bus. So there needs to be movement to get a child as close to a situation where there is general education or with peers as much as possible. I think it’s easy for teachers and administrators to say in relation to IEPs, “He had it last year, we’ll give it to him again this year.”

Jeanette: We see a lot of the same thing when we come into a school as consultants. Lots of educators “get” the need for critical thinking at an individual, cognitive level, but it seems to break down when the system tries to implement it. It is easier to maintain that homeostasis…. “This is how we do it in our school or our district” instead of pausing to consider,“What does this particular child in this particular family in this particular school need?”

Diane: And that’s why we have to have a plan. To get a child out of the box we’ve put him or her in.

Jeanette: Let’s talk about more of those boxes we put kids in, whether its related to their racial identities, identities around disabilities or differences, or gender. How do we counter that?

Diane: I think it’s the modeling.Teachers have to model in school. Which is difficult because you have to go past your beliefs.You must really know yourself and where your glitches are,and then work through that. It’s not actually a bias in race that I see most often, it’s a bias in class, in background…poverty really. I hear, “This student can’t do this because…,” or “This student can’t come to school because…” That’s when I start the line of questioning to get to the root of what the teacher perceives vs. what the reality is.In the Catholic school system, I used “What Would Jesus Do,” falling back on our faith. In the public system, I rely on a line of questioning that I have gotten better at implementing. Had I had that kind of background, that kind of comfort, back early in my career, I think I could have done more with providing effective professional development around bullying and diversity.

Jeanette: So many people that come into social justice work get burned out after the first few years. But you’ve made compassion your work for 30 years now. What keeps you going?

Diane: Whenever you get the tiniest success, you celebrate it. We’ve been working on writing IEPs for three years in the district and as soon as there was one teacher who began writing meaningful IEPs, I toasted her  because you’ve got to celebrate each small step. And I think that’s true for students with disabilities too. When you see somebody has finally reached a goal, or some other kind of success, you celebrate it. You mention it them so they can celebrate it too.

I think it’s the only way you go forward….from one success to the next success. You have to expect the best. You can’t just wait for it to happen. You have to have an attitude that there will be success. You look for it and you celebrate it.