I love it when I can be both parts of me! I was recently invited to do a full day training in September for special education teachers about working with parents. As a teacher, I have credibility talking to them- they know that I know what it is that they face. That I know what kinds of pressures teachers are under. That I know that they have too many children to bring up to “proficient”, too manyother vague roles, and not enough support. That I’ve been there, that I’m training future teachers- that I’m on their side.
But I also get to share with them why parents are angry. Why parents are tired of systems that do not provide trained teachers, adequate services, or instruction that is focused on what their child truly NEEDS, not what the state says their child needs. Why parents are tired of their child’s services being cut because of the economy and not because of the IEP. How the term “appropriate”, from the right to a “Free and Appropriate Public Education”, is a concept that is supposed to be determined in an IEP meeting, not by the financial ability or the state standards of a school system. Why some parents are “de-including” their children because of their choice and the needs of their child, and not a “one inclusion fits all” mentality of the system. Why parents get tired of the educational swings in philosophies that directly impact their child.
As I’ve said before, teachers and administrators often mean well, but school systems are large, massive organizations in which change is slow. I get to help teachers realize that they are the ones caught in the middle- the ones who are trying their best to help families, and yet often are the ones that the families yell at, cry to, and ignore. They are often seen as the messengers of the system, and recieve the brunt of the frustration, the anger and the grief.
Let us not forget the grief. Grief is a cycle and it comes up again and again with families. Where they grieve the loss of a dream, the changes in their lives, the realities that their child doesn’t get to live the “same” as other children. And this grief looks like anger, and it looks like passivity, and it looks like non-compliance. And it looks like advocacy. And in my case yesterday, it looks like whining. Grief changes and it morphs and teachers and parents have to understand that they are both working together with the focus on the child.
Teachers have to know that while they know strategies and they know ways to help and they know characteristics, they do not know that child and they do not know what it is to live within that family system of which disability is but a part. And that everytime they sit in judgement, they isolate that family from reaching out, from providing a supportive network. They have placed themselves clearly on the side of the “system” that is not designed to help families and children, but rather move them through.
It IS the teachers who make that “system” move, who provides the minimum and more to families and children. And this is where teachers have the greatest power- to make or break an educational experience for a child and a family. It is teachers who are working with the child and the parents and everyone sometimes need some help and some guidance. And sometimes, the teacher hates to be the messenger of bad news…
And so, I will be teaching teachers the subtle power they have. How they can balance between what’s best for the child and still not get fired. The way they can provide parents with their rights as is required by law, and emphasize certain words. How teachers can ask if parents have done certain things or seen certain web sites, but not make a “recommendation”. I well remember the year that the school system was threatening to disband my twice-exceptional class because of budget cuts, but weren’t going to tell the parents until it was a done deal. I called up one parent and talked to her…
Me: By the way, Mrs. Smith- did you know that you do not have the right to a particular program, but only to services?
Mrs. Smith: Do you mean that they’re going to get rid of your class?
Me: Classes aren’t required, only services.
Mrs. Smith: Well, I don’t think so! What can we do?
Me: I can’t do anything. I don’t have the authority to make or disband classrooms. Only the principal and the school board can do that. And they only listen to parents, not teachers. I could get fired if I were to advocate publicly.
Mrs. Smith: I understand. Thank you, Dr. Hughes and we’ll take it from here!
Two weeks later, I got asked by my principal into her office. “We’re keeping your program. Apparently, some of your families would be very unhappy if we were to disband your class. Call off your parents,” she said with a very knowing look.
I smiled at her and said, “Well, I’m glad that they voiced their opinions. It’s nice to know that they’re so supportive of our program and our school”.
She and I both knew the game that was being played. She and I both knew that systems listen to squeaky wheels and that advocating parents were ways to get programs. There is a wonderful saying from somewhere that I use often:
- One unhappy parent is a nut case
- Two unhappy parents is a poor teacher
- Four or more unhappy parents is a problem at the school
- Ten or more unhappy parents is a systemic problem that must be addressed
And so, I get to communicate to teachers how they can help families and children- how they can be in the middle and yet make change… Change is most powerful when it comes from the inside.
Any stories or strategies that you’ve experienced appreciated…