A perspective on the world of disability from a mother and an educator. Follow my blog!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Haunting Guilt

That feeling of guilt from my last post hasn't dissipated. In fact, I can feel Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar hanging over my head as though it should be renamed the Bell Jar of Damocles (See my previous post). As the end of the school year rolls around I can't help but think of all the things I did wrong this year. The things I could have done better. The things I should have done more.

It seems I'm not alone. I heard a story of a parent this week who was really at breaking point feeling a similar remorse for past choices and not knowing what to do in the present. I was in tears because I knew they were in tears. I need to buy shares in Kleenex after this year. Her boy is a wonderful yet misjudged young man. Told many years ago 'it's probably ADHD - go get a diagnosis', it was apparent to me that wasn't so. He was so emotionally overwrought from years of 'trouble' that he was programmed by his environment to act and react a certain way. I have heard from many sources about him before, none of the stories good.

To never hear a person spoken of in a positive light is such a profound revelation about the environment that person is trapped in; about the lack of support and empathy that person receives for their indiscretions. When you are universally know as 'the naughty boy', what hope do you have of ever getting out of that spiral? You know no-one will ever praise you for trying to be good. You know people will misinterpret your actions because they see them through their lens, rather than clear, objective glass. What's the point in trying?

As adults we can say 'Well it only matters if I know I was trying my best' and to a large extent this is true. If we can sleep at night with a sound conscious knowing we tried to do right by our fellow man then that should be enough. It's like forgiveness; something that comes from within and is irrespective of what it is attributed to. This is a very hard concept to explain to any teenager, let alone one who is struggling on a daily basis. But perhaps this answers my personal dilemma.

If forgiveness is something that we give and is not something that is earned, then why is it so hard to forgive ourselves and lift that feeling of guilt? It should be given knowing that we've tried our best, and not taking into account the judgements of others. I should be able to forgive myself for not doing the home reader, for forgetting the lunchtime pill, for choosing to wipe the benches before sitting down to draw with my girls. I tried my best, and I should forgive myself for not reaching those unrealistic expectations I place on myself. How would this young man's world change if those around him acknowledged he was trying his best, rather than assuming the worst?

The first step towards a new start for the young man of this story was a fairly simple one. It was a phone call. Support is now in place. I hope the second step, and the third, fourth, fifth and every one after that, will be as easy. I have no idea what number step I'm taking. But the future is filled with less self loathing, and trying to do right, do better and do more.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Life is sweet!

The LesliesDessert dinner party. House over flowing. Acknowledge bad parenting- comparisons made. Bad parenting for a child with a disability- forgetting meds, missing appointments, not doing extra intervention, not able to do extra curricula, too tired for play datesAnyone who knows me that there are three loves in my life. Family, teaching and BAKING! I adore food, but not so much the eating, it’s the sharing time and space with other people. It’s giving a little of yourself to bring joy to others. I grew up in a house where food played a central role and it was about coming together to talk and share stories. Cooking for others in times of illness or stress is something I’ve not just taken part in, but gratefully received.

There is nothing quite like a house full of people, adults and kids, and the sound of laughter filling every space available. I was blessed on Friday night to be able to fill my house to the brim with people who are very dear to me and people I love to cook for. We decided on a theme for the night, which reflected the parental sentiment felt by many at this time of year. We’re all feeling the guilt of being too busy to provide all the things our children need, so we embraced this feeling and went with a dessert dinner party – where all the dishes served were desserts. No meat, no veggies, no salad. The kids thought all their Christmases had come at once and as parents we didn’t have to feel quite so guilty about not preparing a healthy square meal for just one night.

At one point in the evening my beloved eldest comes out after raiding the dress-up box, dressed as 'Dr Bunny' ready to heal our ailments as apparently we were all 'sick'. Must have been an epidemic of high blood sugar levels after all that dessert for dinner! Dr Bunny was kitted out with authentic equipment: blue hair net, rubber gloves and a strawberry scented anaesthetic mask. When I made the comment about how each time Dr Bunny had to have surgery (all minor) she was bold enough to ask for her souvenirs for her doctors dress-up kit, the room fell silent. Everyone was mulling over the thought of how many surgeries that would require (not as many as others I know, so we feel very fortunate). There was that moment of feeling a little bit different as a parent; that reminder that our experience hadn’t been the same as everyone else in the room.

That guilty feeling that often pervades your parental consciousness is seen through different lenses when you are a parent of a child with a disability. Bad parenting for a child with a disability means: forgetting medications, missing specialist appointments, not doing extra intervention, not being able to do extra-curricula activities after school or on weekends, feeling too tired for play dates, robbing your child of their childhood with too much intervention… the list goes on. As I looked around the room it occurred to me that everyone there had a unique concern for their child, which wouldn't be considered above and beyond normal parenting, but showed that as parents we all want the best outcomes for our children. Our concerns for our child are not above and beyond those of the other parents in that room, nor are their concerns for their child any less valid than ours.

There is a commonality of experience. Parental guilt comes from wanting to give our children better than we had, the best part of ourselves; setting the benchmark high and falling just short. Life gets in the way of who we want to be.  We are surrounded by people walking the parenting path with us and when our path is rocky we lean on them and offer our shoulder to others when our path is smooth. We don’t judge as we all have our bag of crazy we packed for the journey. It’s about building each other up, not tearing others down to selfishly get on top.

Wanting to do better is the first step, whether it's parenting, teaching or disability advocacy; taking that guilt and using it to our advantage. Not being owned or controlled by it but actually finding a sense of peace in owning it. My peace comes in knowing I have such amazing people in my life. These holidays will be filled with the joy of sharing our lives (and baking!) with friends, both new and old.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Special Delivery!

Just a very quick post to share a pic of what my Principal gave me this morning! I'm over the moon thrilled and my kids were squealing with delight. This is one VERY happy teacher today!

I fully believe that who I am as a person and a teacher is reflected in my family and students. This is a wonderful affirmation. Thank you to those who inspire me to do better every day!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Nurturing the child.

With only 10 days of school left for this year I am feeling like a bonboniere. The end of a school year is always bitter sweet. I am desperately looking forward to lying in bed until well after the school bell would have rung to start the day. I am looking forward to working around the house, baking, baking and more baking and most of all, spending time with my girls. The bitter part of the holidays comes from me missing my classroom, my office and my students so much it almost hurts. Yes.... I cry on the last day of school as much as the teenage girls do.

I feel truly blessed that I have had the opportunity to come to know so many gorgeous souls over the course of this year. Next year there will be time to continue getting to know these kids, plus a whole swag on new students. Sitting back to reflect on this year I am astounded by how different each of my students really are and how the experiences of this year have helped to shaped and change them. However, it's important to remember that it's not just this year of schooling that has made them. When planning for next year I won't just be taking into account what happened in the last 4 terms of school.

For the last 6 weeks in English we've been talking about perspective and how an author will put certain things into a story that tell us about his or her experiences. They've been able to put themselves into the shoes of others and practice a little empathy. It's been great for them to talk about themselves, reflect on their lives and then realise how that influences the choices they make today. It would be even better if they could then think about how future actions will impact on them before they happen, but I expect as 13 years olds they aren't quite ready for that!

With such a variety of kids across the two campuses I look after it is interesting to think about how their home experiences affect their personality. Some come from very challenging environments, others very supportive, many in between. The relationship between nature and nurture is such a complicated and fascinating dynamic in a classroom as there is so little of it we can actually control as teachers. Many teachers still try and control classrooms rather than letting the experiences happen and using them to learn from.

The nature vs nurture interplay is clearly evident in pregnancy and early childhood. I adored all three of my pregnancies and would gladly sign up again, yet I can see how nature has affected how each child was nurtured and how nurturing affected their nature. Having that life growing inside you makes you so acutely aware of how the things you do influence the growth and development of another. As babies develop in utero any stresses experienced by the mum can impact on their neurological development (Example A - hubby), a difficult birth can impact negatively as well (Example B- myself and daughter number 2). Pre-eclampsia and premmie babies are a good example of this risk factor, though positive outcomes are also possible. Through my work in early childhood I've seen so many infants and toddlers affected by the stresses their parents are experiencing - never for their benefit. Once the event has happened, there's no going back. If the event repeats, it is even harder to repair. Nature and nurture are so intrinsically linked that you can't separate them.

I can't control the early childhood experiences my students bring with them when they walk through my classroom door. Often I won't have any clue about them from in utero or their birth story. Most often I don't even know if they've had breakfast that morning! I can't control or change what has happened before, but I can impact on how they experience life while in those four walls. I am able to control how I plan and teach. So much of their nature is determined before I even meet them, but perhaps if I can nurture them based on who they are when they come to me, and not some preconceived notion I have about what a student should look and act like, then that nurturing might impact on their nature for the better.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Defining Moments

The other day I was asked to define ‘Special Education’. It made me pause for a moment. That phrase has never really sat well with me. I remember as a child that ‘special schools’ had such a negative image. When I had my second and third daughters I had to ask, “Why aren’t they ‘special’? Will their education be less because they aren’t considered to be unique and special?”

One of the blessings and joys of working in a small school is that you get to be a jack of all trades. The last school I worked in had a Special Ed teacher, a Learning Support teacher and a Gifted and Talented teacher. I am all of those things at this school (on top of my beloved grade 8 maths, English and science classes!) yet I don’t get to spend as much time at it as I’d like. The challenge has been amazing and I’ve gotten the chance to apply all the things I’ve learnt from the people that I’ve worked with. Even so, the term ‘Special Ed’ still wasn’t leaving a palatable taste.

After a chat with my principal who understands my obsession with semantics, we’ve settled on a new job title for me for next year; one I am very excited about, given I am taking on the task of coaching the teaching staff to improve the writing skills of our students. From 2014 our school won’t have a ‘Special Needs Coordinator’, we will have a ‘Learning Enrichment Coordinator’. This title really reflects the desire to help all students achieve their best, whatever that may be.  I am busting waiting for my new name badge! Learning Enrichment aptly looks at the lifelong learning skills of everyone equally. I love it!

All this was floating around in my head as this person asked me to define what I do. The very first phrase that popped into my head was social justice. As a family we have experienced so much injustice and inequality thanks to a label, a diagnosis. Chatting with a friend during the week who is also touched by the disability lens we agreed that all we want and expect is the same opportunity that everyone else has a right to. We know equality of outcome isn’t always achievable and in some cases extremely unlikely, but the right to be treated the same is paramount. She has avoided labelling for some years now and plans to continue to do so because of the harm she fears it will bring.

Last in my definition was the idea of mainstreaming or inclusion. These words shouldn’t even rate a mention really, not if we just lived by a ‘do unto others’ policy. If society really believed that our kids were on the same par as all the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ kids then why would we need to ‘include’ those with a disability? The idea of Special Education still ‘others’ a minority and pushes them to the fringe.

Let me relay a conversation I had in class the other day:

“Mrs Lovely,” he asked in his most innocent voice, “are there other kids like me?”

“Of course there are,” I answered (He calls me Mrs Lovely because he can’t remember my name. I adore him for it and, in fact, most of the kids call me Mrs Lovely now!).

“What I mean is, when you went to school, long ago, were there kids like me who didn’t do homework? Did they become successful?”

This question from a boy in my class broke my heart.  It made me cry for two reasons. Firstly, this precious angel thought that just for a moment he wasn’t like ‘other’ kids. He felt different. The second reason I wanted to cry was that my boy thought that because he was ’different’ he couldn’t be successful.  Now while he may not be able to do the same literacy and numeracy tasks as most other students, he frequently comes up with the most incredible insights into our lessons, whether it’s English, science or maths. I am incensed to know that another school in town turned him down because he was deemed ‘unsupportable’.  I am grateful every day that I work in a school where the students do not tease or torment those who appear to struggle at their school work. In fact, I’ve seen so many of them band together to help each other that is also brings tears to my eyes.

He asked me what it was like when I went to school - if there were kids like him back then. While I told him I went to school with kids just like him, I honestly can’t remember any. If there had been, I doubt I would have been as tolerant of them as I am now of my students and my own daughter. I don’t remember a Learning Support unit at my schools or a Special Ed unit. I do remember classes being streamed, particularly for maths. My feelings are that students who struggled were most likely sent to the Special School down the road. Historically the idea of special education was largely an exercise of exclusion and until recently many students were institutionalised and denied any access to education.

I pray that the students that I work with will never know the othering that can occur through word and deed. I want their peers to grow up with tolerance and patience and compassion for all those minority groups that are marginalised. However, I can’t expect either group to learn these things unless we first show them how. I can’t expect them to all feel embraced until I start teaching for all of them, not the bell curve. To expect them to take the first step would be counterintuitive.  I will do whatever is in my power to make their future happy, and for life to be as easy, and as enjoyable as it can be, simply because I care deeply and honestly for each and every one of them, unconditionally and it is what they deserve – no less. For they are all special.

PS: My principal is getting me a ‘Mrs Lovely’ name badge! I’m over the moon!

My friends who sit on my desk and help me teach!