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Special Education

Parents, teach me your ways

By Cory Hanson

I speak from experience when I tell you that the first few weeks of school for a teacher can be some of the most hectic, stressful times of the year. Between new classrooms, changing schedules, new district initiatives, meetings that could have been emails (I really need to finish setting up my classroom!), and getting their own lives and children situated, there is a lot going on.

I take tremendous pride in being my best everyday and giving every student what they need to be successful. Over the course of the school year, I learn who my kids are, what makes them tick, and also what makes them self-destruct. I may crack that code within the first few weeks, but, there are instances every year when it takes a little longer for that light bulb to go off and suddenly all the behavior issues and quirks make sense. Sadly, for some kids, this revelation doesn’t happen until May. For students who are not likely to advocate for themselves, it can be frustrating for me when I realize that a minor change in approach would have made a world of difference for one of my students.

Particularly for children with special needs, this realization can be utterly soul-crushing. Yes, I have access to IEPs. Yes, I find time to read the 10-12 pages for each of my 15-35% SPED population. Yes, I talk with other teachers and have an open line of communication with your child, but teachers don’t know your child like you do, and perhaps your child doesn’t know how to best communicate his or her needs. So, we still miss things sometimes. This is where you come in. This where you can help us see your child’s strengths and weaknesses, help us understand what works, and what doesn’t.

Looks like I missed ya…

The truth is, parent involvement is not the norm, especially as kids get older. I’ve never had more than 30% of my students’ families show up for conferences. Open house? I’m lucky to see 10% of families. Meet and greets with free food? Pushing 50%. I send information home, I send emails, I request emails, I call – and all of that is on top of what their other 7 teachers may be doing, correspondence from the school and the school district!

I really wish I had the time to call each and every one of you personally, on a bi-weekly basis to unpack and understand the little human for whom we are responsible, but I can’t. It’s not feasible or possible. And if we’re being honest, nothing takes the wind out of you like carving out an hour after school to call 10 parents and getting 2 pickups, 4 voicemails, 2 full voicemails, and 2 wrong numbers (ugh!!!).

Throughout the year, I would guess that I have some form of communication, just one single time, with around half of my families. It can be hard to keep the optimism up when we as teachers spend so much time and energy to build community and the results are lackluster.

How can I reach you?

Parents, what do you need to be more involved in school? I know you’re busy, particularly if you’re a parent of a child with a disability. I know work, therapy and doctor’s appointments and other obligations get in the way. But can I get an email? A letter? A tweet? We’ve got to prioritize being involved in our children’s lives.

Can you commit to contacting your teacher (yes, your child’s teacher can be considered “your teacher”, it’s all love) at least once before the first month of school is over?

Help me reach your child

All children (but particularly children with IEPs) are unique. They are unique people, have unique personalities, are unique learners and dreamers. In turn, they require unique approaches and sometimes heaps of empathy and patience to ensure they thrive.

Great teachers don’t just focus on your child’s strengths, but come to understand their weaknesses as well. They delve deeper into the why of your child, rather than just the what. Great teachers understand that children are more than just the sum of their parts.

When we uncover ways for kids to shine as individuals (quirks and all), they tend to unlock hidden potential, inside themselves and their peers. It’s rare and hard to duplicate, like catching lightning in a bottle, but when it happens? The paths of all those involved lead to courses unexpected if not altogether uncharted.

This is why I need YOU!

Every little bit of information counts, no matter how trivial you think it may be. Parents have shared all types of information with me about their kids that I only could’ve learned from them, things that I would have never discovered over the course of an entire school year. You are the expert of your own child after all…

Things like allergies, behavioral ticks, self-esteem issues, bullying concerns, learning preferences, health problems, personal goals and dreams, explanations of things on the “permanent record” or grades. You name it.

When it comes to students with special needs, these conversations have been invaluable, especially when an IEP is outdated or incorrect. It is a mountain of a task to figure out a teenager’s needs and find ways to educate them. But, it can be a hill (probably a really steep hill) when I am afforded “insider info” and a personal connection to the family.

In the end, I want you and your child to look back on their school year and be able to say, “I learned as much as I possibly could. Mr. Hanson cared about me and did what was needed to help me, and I am more confident in myself to do well next year because of those things.” Ultimately, I am more likely to be successful in understanding and connecting with students whose families have built a network within the school and with me.

By being present at a school function or responding to an email request or simply reaching out and being proactive, you can arm YOUR teacher with helpful information to make their goal of reaching all 30 unique minds in their classroom just a little more attainable.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Parents, I know you’ve had schools, teachers, or principals who’ve made you feel insignificant or that your concerns don’t hold value. It’s hard to put yourself out there again. Please, for the sake of your child, take that risk.

Be courageous, be trusting, and work WITH the school to provide as much love and support you can for your child. Speak up and call the school out if need be, but try to remember that every teacher, principal, bus driver, and assistant is a person too and is juggling their own laundry list of responsibilities, obligations, and issues. A little empathy can go a long way, on both sides.

At the end of the day, if you aren’t your child’s champion, can you be sure they even have one?

**

The author is a father, Milwaukee Public School graduate, and educator within the public school system. He is an advocate of Tech in the Classroom and finding innovative ways to reach today’s youth.

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