Emotions Part 3 – Administrators

When administrators become passionate about special education issues, very often their passions are driven by fiscal concerns and/or political ladder-climbing. I have encountered administrators who were more concerned about child welfare and the long-term consequences of the decisions being made than eliminating costs by refusing to educate children and guaranteeing their own paychecks. When I encounter these rare individuals, I practically drop to my knees and worship at their feet.

There are not enough people with integrity in public education administration and that is truly a crying shame. Those administrators who are trying to do the right thing are still burdened with cost concerns, however. It’s how they respond to those concerns that generally defines who is a “good guy” and who is not. A good administrator tries to figure out how the agency will pay for an educationally necessary service, not whether the agency will pay for it (which is largely based on an analysis of what the risks of getting caught breaking the law and going into litigation might be).

When administrators come to the table, it is cost considerations that are often weighing most heavily on their minds. Most school boards, it’s safe to say, are manned by people who are not professional educators. Many are just people trying to get a toe-hold into politics. They understand special education even less than they understand regular education. They are looking at the overall costs of running the agency and, as a board, make decisions that influence the way things are done all the way down to the classroom, usually without appreciating the long-lasting impact of their decisions.  As Mark Twain once said, “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.” (Following the Equator; Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar)

These are the people that agency administrators – good or bad – have to answer to. Over time, it can become more and more the case that an administrator’s job becomes about cow-towing to the board than examining the impact of policy decisions on actual children. In other instances, people go into administrative positions because they have seen children as nothing but numbers from the very beginning. It’s the nature of a bureaucracy to evolve into this kind of machine and attract people who are just looking to be cogs in that machine in exchange for a paycheck. When you see the salaries that top administrators get paid, you realize that we have created a system that gives a financial incentive to people to look at children as numbers rather than as our future.

You can easily end up dealing with a very powerful “not out of my budget” mentality among the higher ups in the administration. The problem with this kind of thinking is that public education is just one facet of our society. When we look at the over-arching entity that we often refer to as “The Government,” public education is just one component of it. The preventative steps that could and should be funded at the K-12 level are far less costly than dealing with unresolved issues throughout a person’s lifetime at taxpayer expense after he/she exits the K-12 system. But, shortsightedness is aplenty in public education and parents need to recognize that the walls that administrators may put up are often deeply rooted in this sort of mentality.

Parents and school site staff have to deal with different emotional responses from administrators. Parents will see some administrators as indifferent, insincere, or conniving. Sometimes those perceptions are accurate. Often times, however, administrators are maintaining poker faces and watching to see the direction things move in so they can plan their next steps, regardless of their intent. Even the ethical administrators have to walk a fine political line that often requires a somewhat noncommittal approach. The good administrators know they’re going to have to sell the idea of providing a unique service that costs money to their board and even though the law puts the responsibility of determining IEP content in the hands of the IEP team, most boards would have conniptions if an IEP team actually committed the education agency to a costly service without the administrators first achieving board approval of the expenditure. That puts administrators in the middle of a very awkward situation.

Diplomatic administrators may suggest to the IEP team that the education agency members of the team “do some research” to {identify some options” and that the team reconvene at a later date to continue its discussions. Parents and teachers need to appreciate that the behind-the-scenes dealings probably involve the administrators trying to determine the degree to which their boards are going to support the most appropriate outcome. That said, parents in particular need to watch the nonverbal body language of administrators during meetings and try to understand where the administrators are really coming from. Sometimes suggesting that the team continue an IEP meeting under the auspices of “doing research” and “identifying options” is just a stall tactic and they’ve already made up their minds to say “no” to whatever is being requested.

The emotions of administrators are a trickier issue for the other members of the IEP team because people don’t usually climb that high up the political ladder by wearing their hearts on their sleeves all the time. Being a smooth operator is more likely to garner success than constant hysterics. That said, school site staff are more likely to see fireworks behind closed doors without parents present than would be seen if the parents were around. 

I spoke once to an occupational therapist who ended up quitting her district job and going into private practice because she got sick and tired of getting screamed at (literally) by the district’s director of pupil services for actually pointing out when children had apparent visual processing disorders. This particular director of pupil services (who was finally asked by her employer to leave after decades of tyranny) was worried that any reference to visual processing deficits would result in parents asking for vision therapy services, which this particular administrator didn’t believe in and didn’t want to pay for. During the IEP meetings, this administrator would just sit at the table turning shades of purple and red while saying “no” and making excuses or just flat out saying “we’re not going to even consider that.”Behind closed doors, she would verbally abuse her staff for any suggestions they made during the meetings or statements they had incidentally made to parents that “put ideas” into the parents’ heads about what they might ask for.

Different from teachers and school site staff, high-level administrators have power and that changes how they respond emotionally to situations. Parents can become frustrated and distraught because they feel powerless in the IEP process and their children are suffering.? Teachers can become frustrated and distraught because they are sandwiched between parents who are turning to them for answers and holding them to very high expectations and administrators who are expecting them to follow internal processes and procedures that might not actually support what it is they need to do, leaving them caught in the middle.  That’s a powerless feeling, as well.

Administrators are sandwiched between IEP teams and school boards, the first asking for things and the other often trying to prevent expenditures. That’s the hierarchy regardless of an administrator’s motivations or intent. The difference is that most administrators have gotten fairly accomplished at dancing around the issues and finding ways to push through the things they want to see achieved and saying “no” to things they are less inclined to support. More so than parents and teachers, administrators’ personal opinions can and do influence outcomes. This can make them arrogant and full of themselves if they aren’t very nice people. Power can easily corrupt. 

Parents, teachers, and administrators all need to work together collaboratively in order for special education students to be appropriately served, but without understanding and respecting the pressures and feelings of all the different team players, that just isn’t possible. You have to keep your brain turned on and your eyes and ears open at all times. It takes sustained effort, but it’s worth it in the end.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has worked as a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991 and as a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005. She earned her master's degree in educational psychology in 2013, with emphasis on human development, learning and memory, evidence-based instruction, and educational program design and evaluation. She has received additional training in mediation and post-graduate studies in applied behavioral analysis and individualized educational data collection methodologies.

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