So much of what we do as parents of children with autism has to do with their education. We are inundated with terms like ARD, IEP, LRE, IDEA, inclusion, and self-contained, ad nauseum. We even have books that teach us what all these terms mean and how to use that knowledge.
But the bottom line for us is the same as that for other parents: We want our children to be taught well. We want them to learn academics, social skills, coping skills, independence, etc. And we want them to learn from teachers who care about their education, care about them as individuals, see them as valuable, and work with us to make sure our children meet all the goals set out before them.
For many parents with special needs children, this positive experience is not found in their school district; they must seek schooling elsewhere. For others, their children’s teachers are players on their “team” and partners in the journey to help their students reach their full potential as people.
Whether in the public school system, in private schools, or in a home-schooling cooperative, competent, caring educators are an invaluable part of our lives.
Nothing brings this home like taking a walk, albeit a short, incomplete walk, in their shoes.
When Cowboy, our son on the autism spectrum, began junior high school, I began working as a substitute teacher. The first day was just a half-day with Kindergarten students on Valentine’s Day. I was a nervous wreck. The teacher in the room next door warned me, “They’ll eat you alive if they smell fear.”
I survived and taught second graders for the next two days. Their needs were more complex, and my day was non-stop. I strived to keep them on schedule, lead them through all their work, keep them from hurting each other, soothe them after they were hurt, admonish those who hurt their classmates, teach them about respecting other people – all before 11:30 a.m. I had a whole new admiration for our teachers. I was overwhelmed with emotion on my first day with second graders; watching all the “car riders” go home, I saw a well-oiled machine that had been put in place to make sure every child was accounted for and went home with the right person. All day, I saw how much the students were cared for, nurtured, disciplined, and above all, loved.
By 3:45 p.m. on the second day of second-graders, I was ready to go to turn in for the night. Perhaps the hardest part was the emotional work. Aspects of teaching I had never considered went through my mind: “Will this child be abused if I give him a conduct mark?” “Is the quiet child receiving less attention because he is quiet?” “Is that child still sucking his thumb because he has emotional issues?” Perhaps these questions seem like dramatic over-analyzing, but they were valid concerns to me.
I had always said I could never be a teacher, and those three days, as well as subsequent days subbing at the high school, confirmed it. It is an awesome responsibility to have the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life on a daily basis. That is, indeed, a heavy load, but one that brings much joy when done well enough to get an appreciative hug from even one of those precious kids.
Every one of the 50 children that I met that first week has his or her own set of “special needs.” I had never seen it exactly like that until then. And students such as our son have added challenges. I cannot imagine life as a Special Education teacher; meeting the needs of those with added physical, emotional, neurological, and/or mental challenges is incomprehensible to me.
To have a class with, for example, three children on the Autism Spectrum, one with Cerebral Palsy, one with Down Syndrome, one who cannot walk, one who is blind, and to meet the specific needs and goals of each child with love and grace is a gift I do not possess. Cowboy's teachers are precious jewels. In 14 years of public schooling, only one teacher was inappropriate for our son, and he was promptly moved to a classroom where his needs were met.
Perhaps every parent should substitute teach for at least one day during their child’s school career. And, in turn, perhaps every teacher should make an in-home visit for 24 hours to see the challenges parents and students face every day, 365 days a year, year after year. Strolling in each other’s shoes would birth understanding, respect, and appreciation between those who are striving for the same goal.