An IDEA by Other Names

“The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act” (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.

In simple terms that means Debbie and Charlie and the students they work with. Debbie and Charlie are Exceptional Education Teacher Assistants. This year they are working with children who attend school in wheel chairs.

Debbie works with Sara. The nurse has nicknamed them the Yum-Yum girls after Sara Lee and Little Debbie.  Sara is a student in my engineering and algebra classes. On the day we talked they were celebrating their anniversary together. Sara had previously been home-schooled and would only enter public school if she had an aide. Our principal found Debbie, who was “game for whatever.” Debbie didn’t take classes for her position, she learned it by herself. And what she learned is how to help one child through a change in life that includes goals and honors classes.

We talked on their anniversary and our conversation was filled with words like closeness, gratitude, partners, and family. Sara is direct with what she needs and they continually learn more about trust and coping and finding a way to make each day better. Debbie has other prospects that include more hours and benefits. But money isn’t everything and she loves what she’s doing. Sara’s goal is to go to my district’s university prep high school. Debbie says when you’ve got a goal your set.

Regarding policy, Debbie doesn’t have any complaints. She wishes there were automatic doors and that kids wouldn’t bump into them so much. An overall increased awareness of special needs would be nice, too.

Charlie has worked with three kids in his time at my school. He says that one invisible part of his work is how much he advocates for his students. Charlie does have a certain level of autonomy – not because it was bestowed on him but because he assumed it. And yes, he thinks policy makers are too removed. He speaks for himself at in my next post.

Like most support professionals, Debbie and Charlie go beyond their job description. Debbie helps keeps me organized, provides an extra set of eyes, and keeps me from taking myself too seriously.  She likes it quite a bit when I get lost in some technology or a rambling explanation I can’t get out of.

Charlie participates in class activities and discussions along with the students. He makes presentations about World War II to our Humanities classes and brings his father’s uniform which is invariably the hit of the year. Charlie has a weakness for corny jokes. Something like, “What’s on the Pink Panther’s to-do list?”  “To do, to do, to do do do do do to do, to dooooooooo” will keep him laughing the whole way down the hall.

At this point in pieces like this the author usually says that without professionals like Debbie and Charlie, prospects for many worthy children would be severely limited. Or maybe the author would talk about what normal means and how kids like Sara make transparent that we all have vulnerabilities and battles and need a little help. Who can’t name the Debbie or Charlie in their life?

Consider those things said and felt by me, too.

But I want to add that colleagues like Debbie and Charlie epitomize the contribution that all support professionals:  office staff, tech support, food service, custodian, health workers, and on and on make to a school.

But that would be like saying air makes a contribution to life.

Support professionals don’t contribute to education, they make education possible.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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