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Let it Go

Helen had accepted a position teaching special education at the Brokenstraw Reservation public school, but the experience was frustrating. She experienced the public schools on Brokenstraw as bureaucratic and self-serving and they were having difficulty competing with the Catholic missionary schools. The Catholic school had a student enrollment of 250 Native American children. Meanwhile, the public school where Helen worked had only 40 students in grades K through 12 all of whom were Native American. It was a struggle to keep the school operating. Helen wanted to be an agent of change, but as she began to make progress with her students, she encountered obstacles.


Helen, a Native American woman, went back to school to get her teaching credential when she was in her late 20's after trying several other careers. She wanted to teach Indian children and she wanted to stay in Millersville, the town where she had lived for the past ten years and had many friends. She chose to teach on Brokenstraw Reservation because it was in easy commuting distance of Millersville, and they had an opening in special education just when Helen was finishing her degree. Helen was from a different tribe, however, which made her an outsider at Brokenstraw. To counter that, she spent a lot of time trying to become accepted within the community, participating in as many community activities as she could. The dances and ceremonies were particularly interesting to her so she joined the dance group that performed in the Native American dance festivals. Through this group she got to know some of the parents of her students and began to feel that she was becoming a trusted member of the community.

It was through dance that Helen felt she was able to establish a relationship with Grace, one of the second grade students whom she served for learning disabilities one hour a day. Grace seemed unhappy and depressed when Helen met her. She was withdrawn and rarely spoke to the other students or the school staff. Determined to help, Helen invested a lot of time getting to know Grace and her family. Grace lived with her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Upton, who were highly respected elders within the Indian community. Grace and her brother had been with their grandparents for the past three years. Their mother abused alcohol, going on frequent drinking binges, and their father had disappeared several years ago. The Uptons had assumed responsibility for Grace and her brother when their mother’s drinking got to the point that she could no longer care for them.

Helen attributed Grace’s difficulty trusting others to her past experiences, so she worked carefully and slowly to earn the girl’s trust. When Helen knew that Grace would be entering a dance contest, she would go to cheer her on and provide lots of praise. She sat with Grace in the school cafeteria at lunch and also helped her with her homework after school. Slowly, Grace became a "success" story. Her academic skills progressed and she began to open up to Helen, telling her how she missed her parents. Helen felt she had finally gained Grace’s trust when one afternoon the girl took her hand and said: "You are my favorite teacher! You are helping me learn how to read!"

Thus, Helen was confused when Grace stopped showing up for her scheduled time in the resource room. Helen talked to Grace’s general education teacher, Mrs. Sorenson, to find out why Grace was not coming. Seeming somewhat uncomfortable, Mrs. Sorenson told Helen that Grace would not be coming to the resource room anymore and that Helen should talk to the principal. This really troubled Helen, so she immediately went to see her principal, Mr. Wallace. As was often the case, he was unavailable so Helen had to set up a meeting with him the next day.

Mr. Wallace was also a Native American. In his mid forties, he was from a different tribe as well and he, too, lived in a neighboring district rather than on the reservation. Like Helen, he had wanted to remain in the town where he had been a school administrator before becoming principal of the public school on the reservation. Unlike Helen, however, he had not made an effort to become part of the community and few people outside of the school knew him.

Helen started the meeting; "I'd like to know why Grace Upton isn't coming to the resource class anymore. She was to be there every afternoon from 1:00 to 2:00. She has made such progress. Grace's general education teacher and I wrote an educational plan for the upcoming semester, but now she isn’t showing up. I talked to her teacher to find out why and she told me Grace would not be coming to my class anymore and that I should talk to you if I wanted to know the reason."

In a rather patronizing tone Mr. Wallace responded, "Now, Helen, slow down and catch your breath. If you think back to our IEP meeting last year with Mrs. Upton, you’ll remember that she was not happy about Grace's special education class."

Mr. Wallace proceeded to explain that Mr. and Mrs. Upton perceived themselves as parental failures with their own son and daughter. They were determined not to make the same mistakes with their grandchildren. They were adamant that Grace and her brother attend the public school because they were not Catholic, but they also were advocates of strong discipline and hard work. As Mr. Wallace explained, "Mrs. Upton insists that Grace needs to be reading from books and doing worksheets more. She’s been going to K-mart and buying workbooks for her to use at home. She doesn’t agree with your teaching methods. She thinks that you are too easy on Grace and that you don’t push her hard enough."

"I know Mrs.Upton wanted me to use more traditional methods with Grace, but they just weren’t working," Helen replied. "In my teacher-training program I learned to use a more child-centered approach which was helping Grace to make better progress. Grace is a simultaneous learner and like many other Native Americans she thinks in pictures. By using the language experience approach, Grace’s reading comprehension improved and she was beginning to read from small books. She was also using some pictograph reading materials to help her develop the basic skills she lacked. With these materials, pictures replace certain words in the text. Everything I have been using with Grace is research based and I can show you the documentation I have kept of her progress."

Mr. Wallace responded, "I understand that you were making real progress with the girl, but yesterday Mrs. Upton came in and insisted that we move Grace out of your room. She simply does not agree with your methods. Mrs. Upton is Grace's grandmother, and I think it’s important that I honor the wishes of the students' families. We also need to think about maintaining enrollment. We can’t afford to loose a student because we didn’t honor her family’s requests."

"But Mr. Wallace "

Cutting Helen off in mid-sentence, Mr. Wallace replied, "Helen, we need to keep good relationships with families. Besides, Grace is still going to receive special education services, she's just going to get them in her general education classroom. I have appointed Mrs. Sorenson as Grace's new case manager."

Mrs. Sorenson was certified by the state in both elementary education and special education. She preferred a regular education format but used her special education training to assist the students in her class who had special needs. Mrs. Sorenson and Helen were the only teachers in the school district with certification in special education.

As Mr. Wallace escorted Helen from his office, his final parting words were, "Keep your chin up, Helen."

After the meeting, Helen could not stop thinking about what had just transpired in Mr. Wallace’s office. She worried about Mrs. Sorenson becoming Grace’s case manager because she considered this teacher to be very cold and business-like with her students. After a fitful night, Helen went back to Mr. Wallace to discuss it further. Mr. Wallace informed Helen that Mrs. Upton was happy and that the matter was closed.

"But, I have developed such a close relationship with Grace and she was making wonderful progress. I’m afraid that Mrs. Sorenson will not take the time to develop a relationship with her. Grace needs that!" Helen replied, feeling as though she was pleading.

"Mrs. Sorenson is an excellent teacher. Grace will be fine," Mr. Wallace responded.

Helen persisted, "I thought we might ask Mrs. Upton to come in for a meeting with us. Her son, the policeman, translates for her but I’m not sure that she really understands what I was doing with Grace and why. Maybe there was some miscommunication. If we could help her understand the purpose behind my methods, she might change her mind. I think that if she knew the purpose, she would see that these methods are much more effective with Grace than the traditional ones she insists I use."

"What's the matter, Helen? Don't you like your new assignment this year?" Mr. Wallace asked kindly. "I thought that you were happy about starting a resource room at the high school for those new transfer students. Including Grace, we have only two elementary students here requiring special education services and Mrs. Sorenson can work with them. I felt that your talents could be utilized best serving the special education students at the high school."

Helen assured Mr. Wallace that she liked her new position, but she didn’t want to see all the progress she had made with Grace slip away. Mr. Wallace told Helen, "The grandparents are happy, Mrs. Sorenson is happy, you should be happy, let it go."

Discussion/Study Questions

1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

1. Was the change in Grace’s placement done correctly? Did Mr. Wallace violate any policies or procedures in changing Grace’s placement without consulting Helen?

2. What are the rights and responsibilities of the school and the family in relation to Grace’s placement and educational program?

3. Do you think that Helen had a responsibility to honor the Upton’s beliefs and values in regard to Grace’s education?

4. What can you do if parents disagree with your teaching methods?

5. Should Helen take the issue further? If so, how? If not, what could Helen do to help facilitate a positive transition for Grace?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case 

Major Areas:

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Variations in beliefs, traditions, and values across cultures within society and the effect of the relationships between child, family, and schooling.

Other Areas:

Differing learning styles of students and how to adapt teaching to these styles.

Instructional and remedial methods, techniques, and curriculum materials.


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