Podcast S2. Ep 55: Why Empathy in IEPs is so Important - Evonya Cornelius

Character Strong · August 27, 2019

Evonya Cornelius is a speech language pathologist with over 25 years of experience in schools, hospitals, and rehab settings in the United States and the Caribbean.  She is the product of the Monroe County Public School System in Rochester, NY. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Communication Disorders from Nazareth College of Rochester and Master's degree in education from Buffalo State College. She owned and operated Manner of Speaking consulting services in Southeast Florida for 12 years.  Her intention is fixed on bringing an awareness of the effects of cultural bias to educators, in order to improve outcomes for all students. From New York to California, her message is a call for us all to focus on cultivating competence, compassion and connection. 

We talk with Evonya about the importance of empathy, some perspective shifts that can change how we approach meetings, and how language impacts our relationships with students and their families. 


“I believe it's vitally important that we lead with empathy because unfortunately we get caught up in the red tape of the process of completing a documentation and having the T's crossed and I's dotted that we lose the human piece.”

Evonya Cornelius

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Hey CharacterStrong commuters. If you're listening during the summer months, that means your most likely some of our most loyal listeners and before we kick off season two starting in September, we wanted to ask a favor. If you haven't taken the time yet to subscribe, rate and review our CharacterStrong podcast on Apple podcasts, we would be so grateful. These ratings and reviews help us to be able to reach more educators with this podcast. It is also just great to see who is listening and from where. Thank you for listening and let's get to today's episode.
  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Evonya Cornelius. Evonya as a speech language pathologist with over 25 years of experience in schools, hospitals, and rehab settings in the United States and the Caribbean. Sharing a bachelor's degree in communication disorders from Nazareth College of Rochester, and a Master's degree in education from Buffalo State College. Her intention is fixing on bringing in awareness of the effects of cultural bias to educators in order to improve outcomes for all students. Her message is a call for us all to focus on cultivating competence, compassion, and connection. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with the Evonya Cornelius.
  • Houston: Welcome everyone to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today's guest, a serendipitous encounter on an airplane ride. Let's just tell the story real quick, Evonya, I'm so glad we're actually sitting in my living room now, a month later, but we met, why did we meet?
  • Evonya: We met because I was traveling to a homegoing for an amazing aunt and I missed my flight and I sat next to you.
  • Houston: And we started chatting because I saw you were writing a little mini book that you were working on. I was working on our elementary toolkit.
  • Evonya: Curriculum, it was serendipitous is the best word.
  • Houston: Yeah. And you started sharing some of your work and your perspectives, and I was like, this woman has a heart of gold. And the thing that was most notable to me was your empathetic approach to a lot of things in life. But the work you do is speech pathology.
  • Evonya: That's correct. And I've had the luxury of being involved with preschool, elementary, middle and high school. I definitely have seen the different stages and phases and from that I think the empathetic piece has just evolved. Truly you have to lead with empathy.
  • Houston: Yeah. K through 12, well probably zero to 95 we all need empathy.
  • Evonya: This is true. This is true.
  • Houston: The specific examples you were given and sort of the theme of the episode to me is is empathy in IEPs. Which is a place that can sometimes if we're not thoughtful about it, be devoid of empathy and I think that sometimes does more harm than good.
  • Evonya: Very true.
  • Houston: If you wouldn't mind, share just I guess sort of first of all your perspective on why empathy in IEPs are important and then maybe some of those stories.
  • Evonya: Absolutely. I believe it's vitally important that we lead with empathy because unfortunately we get caught up in the red tape of the process of completing a documentation and having the T's crossed and I's dotted that we lose the human piece. I'm originally from New York, upstate New York, and had the privilege of working in a lower income charter school area in Jacksonville, Florida.
  • Evonya: And one of the things that struck me, not just with this particular meeting I'm going to share, but in general, it was kind of a shuffling of the papers, getting it done, onto the next. And what stunned me is that the process doesn't serve our student. And we in fact in Florida, they say, "No child left behind." Well in fact, we not only left the child behind, but also the families are being left behind, which support and nurture the child.
  • Evonya: In this particular IEP meeting, I remember because it was just so classic, the psychologist, the principal, the classroom teacher, everyone was seated there at the beautiful conference table and the parent was not there. And at this particular charter school, it was really erected for the poverty ridden projects right there. It was meant to serve that population. And we sat there and the professionals said, "Well, parents don't care. We sent three invitations." And I just stood up and got out of the chair, walked out of the room and went across the street to the projects and knocked on this parent's door.
  • Evonya: And that moment changed me forever because the person that opened the door was a woman of about 27 years old and she had seven kids. And when I came into the home, she was thrilled to see me. She welcomed me. She had the IEP notice on the refrigerator and she was very honest to say to me, "I don't understand it. I didn't understand what I needed to do." And when I looked at it and I thought about how convoluted it could be, she really didn't know, but she does care about her seven children. But with that many children and that much burden, she was unable to perform in a way that we would want or for our IEP meetings expect. Anyway, she came to the meeting and it shifted. It shifted my mindset and my view of looking at this parent in the homes that our children come from with a lot more compassion and care. It humbled me and everyone in the room as we worked with her.
  • Houston: I think that perspective shift, at the root of empathy, Dr. Bernay Brown talks about, she asked the question that I think is a beautiful and challenging one. Do you believe that people are doing the best they can? And in all of her research she's discovered that oftentimes the people that are hardest on others are also really hard on themselves.
  • Evonya: Absolutely.
  • Houston: And so oftentimes that perspective of the parent doesn't care, they're not going to show up, comes off from our own hurt of, thinking maybe we're not doing the best we can, so we project that on others. Which to me is just a great humbling reminder that if we can look at people, which is a challenge, through the lens of they're doing the best they can, it changes the way that we approach a meeting like this.
  • Evonya: Absolutely.
  • Houston: Instead of saying the parent doesn't care, the action is no, maybe they need assistance in showing up. And so you walking across that street seeing the note on the fridge and recognizing that this woman is doing the best she can and your invitation changes everything. And that invitation only comes from the empathetic paradigm shift of people are doing the best they can.
  • Evonya: So true Houston and so powerful because it does, anytime we're thinking of empathy, it's actually an introspective approach that we need to do. The next situation, now coming to the west coast, that was the east coast, but now fast forward to the west coast.
  • Houston: You've been everywhere, K through 12, west coast, east coast.
  • Evonya: Birth to 95, yeah. On the west coast, one of the biggest eye openers for me is that I don't speak Spanish. And that's a humbling thing because I'm so used to connecting with the language piece and so seated in this IEP meeting, we had a parent that reluctantly come and I can just back up and say, the student did not want seventh grade student didn't want her mom to come and say, "Well my mom has a young baby, she can't come." And I said, "Oh, not only will your mom be there, but you're going to be there because you're the guest of honor."

“...I believe it's imperative that we, particularly the educators we're supposedly, the person to whom much is given, much is expected. Sometimes we need to extend ourselves a bit beyond our comfort zones and do those works to help connections be fostered.”

Evonya Cornelius

  • Evonya: And that's kind of the way I always language our meetings is that it's the, we're the guest of honor. Our students should be there, particularly at the middle school because they do need to be an active participant in their learning and they also need to feel and see the support of the team around them. I'm always at a pause when we sit in the IEP meeting at the middle school level in particular, and we talk about what the student is not doing and no one ever hears from the student. That's one of my hard fast rules, the student will be there.
  • Houston: I don't like being talked about when I'm not in the room. That makes a lot of sense to me.
  • Evonya: But in this meeting, the mom came in and she was only looking at the, she only made eye contact with the translator and it actually kind of touched me that she was making contact only with the eye contact, only with her translator, but talking with everyone in the room, seated at the table. And I said to myself, I remember her daughter had been said, she's the fastest runner at the school. She's the top three. And so I asked the translator, "Ask the mom, was she an athlete?"
  • Evonya: Mind you, this mom was seated in the meeting. She was breastfeeding during the meeting. Her head was hung low and she never made eye contact. In that moment, when I asked that question, she sat up, I watched her body language. She turned her position of her body and looked at me. I was seated across the table from her and the translator was at her left. And in that moment I knew that I had established a connection because not only did she see us, but I saw her and we saw her and her whole affect changed. And the whole theme and tone of the meeting changed.
  • Evonya: And I believe it's imperative that we, particularly the educators we're supposedly, the person to whom much is given, much is expected. Sometimes we need to extend ourselves a bit beyond our comfort zones and do those works to help connections be fostered. That meeting was very powerful. A lot of times the moms on the west coast and the dads, they're apologizing and I tell them, "No, you're seated at the table and we're glad you're here. You're a part of our success team." Even the language of, guest of honor, success team, you're a part of this. And during that introduction, welcome to our meeting. We're glad you could be here. Really helping that parent to feel like not they're just here to hear this report of their kid, but they're an active participant in the learning experience of their student.
  • Houston: So many good paradigm shifts in there. I love it so much. And again, if we take it back to empathy, I think about how so much of empathy is in the eyes and how, what a gift eye contact can be for that sort of, that source of connection. Why? Because we all crave to be seen.
  • Evonya: That's right.
  • Houston: And so you're in the situation where they're making eye contact with a translator. But I think one of our big goals before we can get any work done is to have people feel acknowledged and seen and safe in that space. And I think so much of the things that we think about Evonya, in our work is how do we create tools that earn us back time? Because it's the most precious resource. And I think sometimes we think that doing the five minutes at the beginning of human connection, is we don't have time for it, we only have 30 to 45 minutes with this IEP meeting. But the reality is you invest that time up front, you get it back.
  • Evonya: Absolutely, 10 fold and then you get carryover because now that parent isn't looking at this experience as just as one traumatic thing where they come once a year, but they feel connected and they feel a part of something that is very meaningful for not only that student, but for everyone in the room.
  • Houston: Yeah. To be part of the success team.
  • Evonya: Success team.
  • Houston: With the guest of honor. Because ultimately, this thing shouldn't feel like a punishment. Things shouldn't feel scary to be a part of. It should be excited. How do we best support this person's individualized plan? Because that's what they need and we're glad to be here. We're glad you're here.
  • Evonya: It's an honor. That's what I usually will say to my parents. It's an honor to work with your student.
  • Houston: That's so beautiful.
  • Evonya: Absolutely.
  • Houston: And then to notice. That her daughter is the athlete, so were you an athlete?
  • Evonya: Oh yes, I could tell she had been. She was still very fit looking and it was a powerful moment. It really was. It's a small thing that meant a lot.
  • Houston: Evonya, from east coast to west, K through 12, your approach and your perspective of how do we look at not only all students, but particularly this sometimes really challenging work of these IEP meetings where we could easily have that dismissive, negative perception.
  • Evonya: That's so true.
  • Houston: And if we can show up every day thinking people do the best, are doing the best they can to make those human connections.
  • Evonya: They're doing their best.
  • Houston: Those empathetic moments, they can change everything and not only for the students, but for the families, which we know so much of the work is done at home. What a gift to change those paradigms in a way that honors the student, honors the families and honors the work. Thank you for your wisdom.
  • Evonya: Well said.
  • Houston: Thank you for sitting on that plane next to me.
  • Evonya: My honor.
  • Houston: And being with us here today. Looking forward to sharing this with educators all over.
  • Evonya: Thank you Houston.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.