I did it again. I said the words "If I can help. . ." without thinking through the implications.
This time, I was offering to babysit a neighbor's children. When I said it two weeks ago to a brand new acquaintance, she emailed me within days to ask if I could take her to a doctor's appointment (I couldn't, and I didn't). I told a fellow member of a social organization to which I belong to "call me if you need anything," despite the fact that I'm truly booked out through Thanksgiving. My frequent offers to help – well-intended though misguided – are symptomatic of my tendency to overcommit. I genuinely wish I could be "there" for everyone. Maybe it takes guts I've not yet developed to refrain from offering more than I can give.
As I reflect on this tendency to speak when I should be silent, suggest when warm sympathy might be sufficient, I wonder if it's this very tendency – or its "first cousin" – that manifests itself in case managers who raise the expectations of parents of a student with special needs: "Of course we'll get Mary on the bus tomorrow!" How often transportation professionals tell me that they've been placed between a rock and a hard spot by commitments made at an IEP team meeting to which they weren't invited, and about which they hear only after the fact. These commitments can compromise both operational efficiency and student safety, while eroding parents' trust in the transportation department. Instead, why can't the case manager just say "I'll need to contact the transportation department before settling on the most appropriate transportation arrangements we can make for your child."
It's been kind of cathartic for me to write these paragraphs, but those of you who follow our blog might like to discern some value to you in this confessional. Maybe the value lies in an approach you might take with too-generous case managers. Help them understand the limitations on your ability to provide appropriate service "yesterday" when a student needs special transportation. Assure them of the forms of service that you're able to provide with little notice at all. Describe the kind of constraints that apply when a student's unique needs stemming from a disability necessitate acquiring equipment that isn't "in stock," securing particular seating devices and systems that ensure safety, empowering attendants with confidential information and special training to prevent the type of problems that might reasonably occur for this student in the course of the ride.
But here's an observation: It takes guts to admit to limitations, just as it will take guts on the part of the case manager not to offer up front whatever the parent wants by way of transportation for his or her child. I suspect the development of such guts takes practice. I'm going to start practicing myself. After all, I don't want to be simply "overcommitting" to a change I can't achieve. Let me know if this resonates with you, and, if it does, I'd love to learn any tips you can share for success.
Peggy Burns is the former in-house counsel for Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, Colo., and currently owns and operates Education Compliance Group, Inc., a legal consultancy specializing in education and transportation issues. She is also a frequent speaker at national and state conferences and is the editor of the publication Legal Routes that covers pupil transportation law and compliance.