Effective letter writing is an art an advocate must practice and perfect continually. Some pointers for advocate communications are provided below:
1. Educational Record: School personnel often prefer to operate in the realm of the spoken word. They can temporize, mislead, deny, refuse, and, through a flow of educational jargon, avoid dealing with educational issues. They understand that as long as their words and for that matter, the words of the parent, remain in the verbal domain, there is no real accountability.
This is why the axiom, that “if it is not in writing, it didn’t happen,” is so important to the world of educational advocacy. Written communications move the educational dialogue into the student’s educational records. With the parent’s position carefully articulated, it will be harder for the district to misrepresent or mischaracterize the parent’s position. The advocate will find that the district will respond much differently when the advocate puts his communications in writing. The responses will be more careful and considered. While the district’s response may, at first, still be vague and full of educational clichés, the process will have started toward moving the parties to real dialogue on the record. As the advocate develops the art of letter writing, the advocate will learn to write letters, which require more informative and responsive replies.
2. Objectives: As in any undertaking, the advocate should have very clear, precise objectives in his letter writing (or other communication). Before beginning any letter, it is important to consider your precise objectives and to determine to remain focused on these objectives alone. Any material that cannot be justified in relation to a important objective, does not belong in the letter. See strategic planning.
3. Consider tone: Among your objectives you should have a clear sense of what tone or attitude you want to transmit. You may want to introduce yourself and underscore a positive attitude of collaboration. You may have reached a point requiring a firm insistence. Even if you have reached a total impasse and you have no hope of resolving issues, sarcasm, anger, and threats have no power to help you meet your objectives. While I might mention the parent’s frustration, doubts and issues of trust, I generally attempt to separate myself from those emotions in my own communications. Any focus upon perceived slights, “he said – she said” accounts, or other emotional arguments are generally counter-productive.
4. Be Concise: Long rambling letters may contain all the essential information, but they too often lose their impact due to the length and the lack of organization. Many professionals will judge the advocate by the quality (or lack thereof) of the advocate’s communications. They will often ignore or at least give slight attention to letters, which are not clear. Most letters can be reduced in length by half if you develop a tough standard for your own work. Remember your letters will often be reviewed and evaluated as to whether their demands or statements effectively place any responsibility on the school district. Remember that your letters become part of the student’s educational record.
5. Be Organized: An effective letter will be organized in its presentation. Consider the simple formula of (a) an introduction; (b) statement of concerns; (c) statement of requests; (d) conclusion. Use the introduction to be positive. Remember the value of positive behavior reinforcement. Thank the district for some positive actions (“catch them being good”). This can be short and professional. If you are responding to a particular letter or communication, state exactly what is being responded to, with the date. I try to make my statement of concerns short and precise, using educational terms and concepts. The statement of requests should generally be made in the “conditional” tense and politely. It is just as easy to say, “We would appreciate a meeting of Johnny’s IEP team to consider the …,” as to say “We demand an IEP meeting.” Your conclusion should invite continued communication, especially stating your willingness to dialogue on the issues raised in the letter. It is often helpful to state the immediate action you would like the recipient to undertake. Example: “Please let me know as soon as you have been able to determine several suitable dates and times for the IEP meeting.”
- As in any type of writing project, it is wise to do an outline prior to beginning writing. - It is very useful to use bullets or numbers when listing concerns/issues or requests.
- Generally when I number these items, the recipient will respond using the same format. This makes it much easier to be sure each item is being responded to.