I did a presentation to special education teachers last Friday, which if I might brag just a little (ahem), was amazing. The teachers were involved, interested, and active. One was a parent of a child with disabilities and she “got it”. They made me laugh, I made them cry. One of the comments back to me was “You really can speak from both perspectives. You’re in both clubs!”
I was tremendously complimented, but what I really wanted to say was “It depends on where I’m standing.” For you see, I am a member of the “Parent Club”- the one that Jess, in A Diary of a Mom welcomes you to so eloquently. The one that Alysia Butler writes about needing so much. The one where we find such support, such understanding and a community of people who “get it”. The one that… so many of us hate being in. It reminds me a bit of the Groucho Marx quote- “I don’t care to belong to a club that would accept people like me“. We “get it”, we understand each other, and we support each other- but oh, we miss the days- and sleep-filled nights- of ignorant bliss.
There is no joy in becoming a member of this club- this is no first round draft selection; this is no Bid Night for Sorority. But there is comfort in sadness together and there is comfort in the types of joys and celebrations that only another parent of a child with autism, or Tourette’s or bipolar disorder, or twice-exceptionality or…. can understand. And the club is critical to our survival. I only wish I didn’t need it. I didn’t chose this club- it chose me.
But I am also a member of the Teacher Club. The one who also celebrates growth, who also understands differences, who also understands frustrations. The one who understands the dynamic relationship between home and school, and that what you see at home may not be what you see at school. The one who loves kids and especially the kids that other teachers don’t understand, don’t want, or aren’t taught how to teach; the kids that other kids don’t understand, don’t want, or aren’t taught how to learn with. The one who seeks the key to teaching like I solve a puzzle. This club, I chose.
What was very clear in my presentation is that there are a lot of similarities.
What was very clear in my presentation is that there are a lot of differences.
What became very clear during the presentation was:
***That while parents and teachers celebrate and recognize the very specialness of the child, teachers do not have the joy mingled with the grief that comes from missing the child who never was- the child that they were “supposed to be”, only autism/Tourettes/something else got in the way. That grief may come and go, but it is always, always there.
***That while both teachers and parents are focused on growth, teachers measure progress by how far a child has to go, while a parent measures progress by how far their child has come. Parents have a memory of the battles-for identification, for services, for stability, for growth- that have already been fought- those that have been fought and those that have been lost. This memory- biological in its “fight or flight” response- is as old as their child, and those memories are dredged up in every conflict. There is no “new” fight- there is just a continuation of the same fight, and it might ebb and it might flow, but it’s still the same fight. But to teachers, new conflicts are new. New conflicts are time-bound, issue-bound and related to situations that are happening right now, right here. Parents are aware of the cost and the struggle that has already been spent and want acknowledgement for the progress of the battle. Teachers often focus on the cost and the struggle still ahead and want support for the battle ahead.
***That while parents see their child as a constellation of needs- medical, educational, therapeutic- teachers see the child in a constellation of others- part of a group, and the actions and reactions and interactions of needs that come from a multitude of children. Teachers are constantly balancing the needs of the child with the needs of the many. As parents, we have one child with many needs we’re trying to balance.
***That parents will be working with their child’s autism for the rest of their lives. Their relationship with their child, and autism, is often bigger than a marriage, bigger than financial solvency, and bigger than anything we might have ever imagined. As teachers, we leave at the end of the day. We leave at the end of the year. We pick up our own lives at that point, which might include disability, illness and other issues that are bigger than we are, but the professional part is limited by time and location. We do our best for 6 to 8 to 12 hours a day, often more time than we spend awake with our family, but we leave it behind. Parents pick that back up every day for every year. They don’t call it “committment” for nothing. This is a lifetime sentence of being in the Club.
The focal point of the six-hour Professional Development Workshop was “How to Communicate with Parents of Children with Autism”. There is an incredible need to be able to respect each other, talk to each other, and understand each other. There were all sorts of “typical” communication strategies- active listening, providing time for communication, and knowing the points where communication tends to break down- delivery of bad news, legal understandings, etc. The recognition that teachers are caught between the school system and the parents; the legal and financial constraints of a system and the needs and desires of the families, and sometimes, the desire to keep your job and the desire to do a good job.
Both teachers and parents know that they have to learn to communicate with each other. They know that everyone’s job is easier, than the child benefits, that progress is made when communication happens. But it’s important to know that while we’re in the same book, and hopefully, the same chapter, we are not- very definitely not- on the same page.
One of the most powerful points of the day came when I was presenting effective ways to handle parental responses. The key piece I wanted to convey was the need for teachers to validate and sympathize, not empathize. Empathize is to share those same feelings. Sympathize means that you understand and you “get it”. Sympathize is to support:
It must be very hard to hear that…
I can see that you’re upset…
It’s very difficult to… especially when…
Teachers, well-meaning, kind, caring people that they are, should NOT say “I know what you mean…. I understand where you’re coming from…I feel that, too…” It comes off as patronizing. It comes off as the precursor to that most dreaded of communication breakdowns- the YeaButs. Parents/Teachers- wanting the best, trying to understand, trying to bridge that gap- may say “I understand that…yea… unh uh… yea, but…” and that “But…” is emphasizing the different point of view, the gap, the different page. Just as MC Escher drew different ways of seeing the same thing, parents and teachers, by definition of their relationship to the child, are in different places from each other.
Because the reality is that when you’re a teacher, you have a different goal, a different purpose. Even if you’re a parent of a child with exceptionality, even when you’re a member of the Club in a different place, when you’re in the role of a teacher talking to parents, you have a different context. You have the context of school. You have the stage setting of your classroom in which you, and others like you, control the play and the actors; and the parent is but an audience member or maybe a stage hand. You each have the same desire for growth, but you have different views, different directions, and different needs. And to say that you do is asking for serious distrust, serious miscommunication, serious conflict.
If you’re a parent reading this…/ If you’re a teacher reading this…
What is needed is understanding.
What is needed is respect.
What is needed is an acknowledgement of differences, while appreciating what makes you different.
After all, you’re not in their club.