Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Dear Teacher, Sorry for being "THAT" parent.

Dear Teacher,

I'm sorry that I am "THAT" parent. That parent who calls and emails and sends notes in the agenda asking about how my child is able to keep up with the expectations of the classroom. That parent who asks you for the names of the kids my child, Phoenix, plays with, so we can ask her about her day. That parent who expected that as a school you would be fully prepared to support Phoenix on the first day of school, and every day thereafter.

Dear Teacher, please understand that my expectations for excellence lie not just with you, but with our entire system. Please know that I'm also that parent who challenged the school board on the special education coding they had given my child because I know that they didn't have the evidence to justify it.

As a teacher myself, I can understand the  difficulty of the balance between meeting the needs of all the students, producing and performing lesson plans, meeting the demands of the administration, co-ordinating with other professionals like OT and PT, preparing student agendas and handouts, writing report cards, writing and implementing IPP's.

 I know, it's a big job and I respect that you are doing this job to the best of your ability.

However, I'd like to tell you about MY job.

It's my job to love, nourish and support this little girl to be the best that she can be with the challenges that she has been born with. So while you focus on teaching my child the skills she will need to pass this year, I focus on the skills she will need for her lifetime. 

I look at barriers like weak hand muscles and poor fine motor skills and think "well, we'll just teach her how to type". I arrange OT to help us find ways to modify and adapt clothes to make them easier to put on and take off. I work with Phoenix on reading flashcards not only to teach her the fundamental skill of reading, but to have daily practise on her speech and articulation. I was the one to teach her sign language as a baby to help her communicate her wants and needs before she could speak. I advocate. I write. I research and I connect with others like me in the Down syndrome community who are blazing a trail demanding equality for our children.

You see, because Phoenix was born with an extra 21st chromosome, she falls into a group of people who are some of the most marginalized in our entire society. So not only do I worry about her ability to make friends, complete school work and negotiate the education system, I also worry that her inclusion in this very visible group makes her a target for low expectations, preconceived ideas about her competence and outdated ideas about where children like her "belong".

Did you know that there are still administrators and teachers who believe that children like Phoenix do not belong in a classroom of her peers? That it is a waste of resources to teach a child like Phoenix  who may never achieve a high school diploma, or go to college or contribute to society in a meaningful way? (Their biases, not mine). Did you know that it is only within our lifetime that children like Phoenix have been entitled to go to school with their peers?

Did you know that in the generations preceding mine, parents who found themselves to have birthed a child like Phoenix were encouraged to abandon their child in an institution because this child was considered uneducable? That is was doctors and experts who recommended this, and that it was families, like mine, who pushed back and made this practice unacceptable? Did you know that there are places in the world where this practice still happens?

Did you know that during WWII, Hitler included people with DS in the group slated for extinction? That for generations, people with DS were regularly denied medical treatment and this is one of the reasons why their life expectancy was only 25 years? Did you know that up until the 1980's some doctors still advocated denying life saving operations to newborns with DS, because their death was preferable to living "a life of misery and suffering"?

Did you know that these ideas still influence perceptions of children and adults with DS today? And that adults with disabilities face the largest barriers to finding employment of any demographic in North America?

Dear Teacher,  I am aware of these things.

I am aware of the prejudices and biases. I know that people look at Phoenix and underestimate her abilities and knowledge. People look at Phoenix and they lower their expectations. I see it all the time. 

In fact I saw it this week with the ECS teacher assigned to our family who spoke to Phoenix in the sing song voice that is normally reserved for infants and toddlers. Who allowed Phoenix to rummage through her bag, sit on her lap and grab her papers on their very first meeting: all behaviours which should be totally unacceptable from a student to their teacher.

Did you know that we have extremely high expectations for Phoenix's behaviour? So when I correct you for allowing her to do things that should be unacceptable, I'm not trying to step on your toes. I'm not trying to be difficult. It's just that your lowered expectations make it harder for us to enforce good boundaries and to teach the good behaviour which will allow her to succeed in school and afterwards at work and in life.

I am not trying to interfere when I ask to speak to her aide about how things in the classroom are going, or when I question what Phoenix is able to do. I need to know that your expectations for what her year looks like are just as high as mine. That you will expect good behaviour and use positive incentives to encourage good choices. I need to know that you see her as a child who is willing and able to learn - if she is given the right supports to do so.

Because I am building this child up to face challenges, meet expectations, and feel confident enough to take chances. I am fostering her loving and accepting nature. I give her hugs, dry her tears of frustration and encourage her to try again. I nurture her spirit.

Dear Teacher, what I want to say is that we both have important jobs to do here and that my actions and thoughts will always be guided by what I feel is in Phoenix's best interests.

You can also view a version of this post on The Mighty.

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