I recently met with the teacher of Callie’s leadership general ed class. There was hesitation, not because I did not want to meet him, but because the general ed teachers that Callie has had in the past and this school year too, have all been pretty much the same. Callie is just a body in a seat, and since he is accompanied by a paraprofessional, the consideration of his needs is not a priority nor a necessity. No discussions have taken place on modifications for his understanding. No sense of responsibility to help breakdown the lessons being taught. (“That’s the paraprofessional’s job” they say. – So not true!) Paraprofessionals are seen as a safety net. No need to interact as long as his help is near. So forgive me for going into a meeting a tad unsure. Even though Callie is currently attending a new school this year, the dynamics of it all has not changed much. Giving a decent passing grade and documenting attendance appear to be the consensus across the board. Their actions imply that this is all that is required. However, this teacher was totally different. He talked about Callie and his participation in class. I listened to him carefully, because most general ed teachers speak of Callie and how involved he is, but it’s over exaggerated, and when I ask Callie to tell me at least one thing he’s learned, there is instant silence. This time though he said things that I knew had to be true, especially knowing my child. The teacher defined what leadership meant as it relates to his class and how he would translate that to Callie. He even gave me a timeline of the whole semester. That alone allowed me to breathe a little. Normally, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get a timeline or a lesson plan ahead of time. Next he said, “Mrs. Dawson, I want to see what Callie can do. I know he is smart and can do more than people give him credit for. I’m so sure of his abilities, that I haven’t even read his file. I don’t want to know what other people say about him; and let’s be honest, most who read a file immediately put the child in a box. I don’t want to do that.” For a brief moment, I thought I was being tricked and people with cameras would come out from everywhere shouting “Gotcha!” No teacher has ever taught him without reading his file first. Of course, for them, that is a nightmare. Their argument would be wanting to be prepared and not be blind-sided. You want a general idea of who my child is…..and I get that! However, I’ve also known that reading the file does not tell the whole story. His diagnosis and his weaknesses tend to supersede his strengths and progress. Once read, he becomes a statistic and is further identified by a label. I don’t expect teachers to not read what’s written about my child, but I would love for their opinion of him to not solely reflect what’s written about my child. And I do believe what you take in will ultimately affect the anticipation of success. So instead of looking at the child as a lost cause where even a brighter day is too much to hope for, go in with the expectation that this child can learn. A diagnosis does not equal incompetence, and you miss out on seeing and being apart of the wonders of a child grasping knowledge when you focus only on what’s on paper rather than the individual.
The teacher further asks for me to share who Callie is. He says I know him better than anyone and he wants to know what can help make this year a successful one for him. Is he for real? He can’t be. He wants to know things from me. This is not always the case for many parents. A lot of teachers have this sense of being “familiar” when it comes to autism or whatever the diagnosis may be. Their explanation of their years of teaching and training always conveys they feel like that amount of time is sufficient. And there are some who may indeed inquire about your son or daughter, but truthfully, how many really take it to heart and implement some of your ideas and experiences into teaching them? This morning, I ran into Callie’s leadership teacher when bringing Callie to school. He apologized for not emailing me to let me know how Callie has been doing. So he gave me an update on the spot. What was fascinating is that what he told me about Callie was not surprising. I’ve heard “far fetched” before but today I heard realistic. I heard some information, that I had suggested, regurgitated back to me. He actually listened. I realized that many problems in the special educational school system has to do with training. And much of that training is geared only for special ed personnel. It tends to overlook the general ed staff who are involved with our kiddos daily too. Much of the training done is also from professionals – doctors, therapists, administrators, educators, etc. But where are the parents in all of this? Does not our knowledge from our journey matter? We may know something about behaviors, communication, life skills, academics and floor play. Quite frankly, just knowing our child period is our educational degree, especially because many of us were our child’s first teacher and therapist (without really realizing it.) At the beginning of the year, parents fill out tons of paperwork requesting their child’s likes, dislikes, their behaviors, how does our child communicate their needs, what rewards are used to praise the child and what is used to correct a behavior. You call as soon as a problem arises, and you are very eager to let us know the failures, so it can be pointed out in the next IEP meeting. It’s clear that parents are needed, so why not include us in the academic, social and behavioral process in setting goals for the year and training the special educational staff, as well as, the general staff and administration? Don’t just rely on an individual’s file. Ask parents to educate and join the panel of professionals to teach and offer suggestions about our children. School is in session for about 7 – 8 hours a day. We’re with our children much longer than that. We do have an inkling on how to help and we know what works. Why not listen and learn sometimes from the ones who know our children best? We’re not trying to take over your job. We can’t do what you do, but because we have been apart of our child’s days and nights, even when there wasn’t a professional around to assist, we do bring something to the table besides goodies at holiday and birthday parties. We may just surprise you with our home remedies. Yes, we have love, hope, patience and determination, but we also read, research and navigate on this journey by trial and error. Autism, and I would venture to say, most diagnoses do not come with a road map. You play it by ear, but that’s how you learn. Don’t structure the entire educational team based on professional jargon alone. Don’t just review a bunch of records from different special needs children and feel you have it all down. And don’t see us as obnoxious or overly concerned parents who feel we have the answers to everything. We’re really here to make your job easier. And yes, there are parents out there who care so much that it becomes overwhelming for the teacher and consequently for the child. I admit the presentation and timing could be altered a bit, but at the end of the day, no one loves our child more and has their best interest at heart than we do. All we want is for our children to have a great learning experience. We don’t want our children sitting in a class where the lesson is far above their head. We don’t want them being ignored. They have every right to be seen as any other student. In addition, they deserve to be in a good environment that includes their strengths and not be dismissed because you see the words “disability and impairment” typed boldly across their school records. We’re here to help you help our child. It’s called support. Hopefully our home remedies will one day be perceived as what my husband calls an “extended arm of support” and not something you always hate to see coming.
Thanks for listening,