An educator growing in an understanding of education

“Mom, I miss Ms. Christyne so much. I wonder if I will ever see her again?” my son randomly said in the car this morning. He went on to talk about how, when you are no longer in someone’s class, you start to miss them but you also start to be a little nervous about seeing them again. “You just start to forget, mom” he said. “And maybe they start to forget you a little bit too.” I wondered where these thoughts on teachers were coming from, but I suspected it was probably because the changing of the guard is about to happen once again. The year will end, and the teacher he had grown to love will move onto another class. And he will, as all of us have to, learn to love and interact with someone new. I can remember this process vaguely as a child, leaving the comfort of one classroom you were used to being in and the classmates you were used to sitting around and moving into another one year after year. I also remember the feeling of “What if they forget me?”

This week is teacher appreciation week, and I find that instead of reflecting on my own education… I am reflecting on my son’s educational experience thus far. Perhaps it is because my own elementary and high school experience is getting smaller and further away from  the rearview mirror of my memories… or perhaps it is because his experience has been so eye-opening for me thus far. Maybe it is both.

You see there is something I really did not understand about education before these last few years – I did not understand what it felt like when it wasn’t straightforward. I did not understand what it felt like when you didn’t just show up and learn. I knew what it meant to fail a test or two, sure. I knew what it meant to be more understood by one teacher over another, everyone does right? But I did not realize what it meant to learn differently than others. I did not realize what it meant to have to ask for and receive accommodations, and also what it meant to be refused them.

Last year, when we discovered my son’s hearing loss, I immediately turned to the google search bar and looked for all the resources and help I could find. And I discovered that one of the places you looked for help first was the local school district. Though we had lived in our school district for the last four years, my son was in full time daycare so I did not know exactly who to contact. Luckily through google and a bunch of other very helpful people, I ended up contacting the right person and filling out all the right paperwork to have him tested. Luckily, I reasoned, the only help he really needed was equipment for the classroom to help him hear better and a person to teach him about how a student with hearing loss can effectively learn in the classroom. It also seemed like these things would be easy to agree upon… he had moderate hearing loss in both ears. From all I read,  kids with moderate hearing loss needed these things to be successful in the classroom.

We went through the evaluation process, and a few weeks later, I received the results in an email along with a call to set up an ARD meeting (another really new term for me – basically the meeting with a team from the district to go over what they can and can not provide in terms of services for a child). I read the report through and was near tears by the end of it. I immediately called the contact person and emailed and said “What do you mean he does not qualify as having a disability?” She assured me that we would talk about it all at the meeting in a few days. I went to the meeting armed with research and information sure that with conversation they would adjust their findings. Instead, after an hour of back and forth, they remained firm – In their eyes, he needed nothing from them at this time. I said “I believe it is my right to sign that I disagree and I would like an independent evaluation of my son.” They produced the paperwork, I signed by the box “disagree” and I left the meeting confused and sad. Over the next week or so, I researched why they might deny my child services, and I learned that my particular school district frequently denied children with hearing loss services. They did not often perform all the tests that a child with hearing loss required, and they were probably not going to change their mind. A couple weeks and emails to the supervisor later, however, I got an email that said they needed to continue the ARD to discuss my concerns. I showed up to the second ARD with my son’s speech therapist armed with more articles and information and more resolution that I could not leave without what he needed. That two hours were two of the most difficult hours I have ever spent. I continually, minute by minute, as patiently as I could, fought for my son. And they fought me back… every step of the way. At one point, I was told “Your poor son.” I asked what that meant, and the individual responded “It’s just that his mom is over-testing him, it has gotta be so hard on a child that just wants to be a kid.”

In the end, I fought for every test on the premise that if they really believed he did not qualify more tests were nothing to be afraid of, and they eventually agreed to do every test. I left with the plan to contact them to schedule the remaining tests. I remember walking out to my car at the end of that meeting, taking a deep breath and letting all the emotions and tears come flowing out. I sat there, quiet for awhile, asking God what I should do next. Then, recovered, I suddenly realized that I had a choice. I did not have to let them test my son. I did not have to subject my son to anything more from individuals who passionately denied him services. I had a choice. I did not have to choose the district we lived in. I had the resources to be able to make another decision for my son that would be better for him.

Many parents, however, do not have that same ability to choose. I go back time and time again to those meetings in my head. I recall vividly how hard I fought and how I eventually gave up the fight, that I walked away and I did not push for services my son deserved and desperately needed. And in the fall, he was blessed to attend a Catholic school in a new district. A district that understood hearing loss, and thought it was a no-brainer that he should have equipment and an itinerant teacher to meet with him once a week and help him learn advocacy skills. He was blessed to be surrounded by educators at his school who desired to get to know him and help him learn in whatever way was best for him. I remember often that I was blessed to have a choice to walk away… and I remember that there are so many that can not.

I feel an ache in my heart for kids like my son who do not get the services they need in school – often due to the lack of finances and/or lack of adequate training of the individuals who make the decisions… perhaps often a combination of both. I do not pretend to have the answers. I have no idea what pressures were behind the people that were sitting at the table with me that prompted them to fight so hard against me. I just know that I am heartbroken for kids who fall under the radar until maybe they are so behind that someone finally has to notice… or they just fade from view.

I do not know what I am called to do about this but understand that whatever it is, it starts with sharing my experience – a desire sparked by my son’s comments this morning. “Mom, I just miss her so much.” Ms. Christyne was the first, among many since, teachers to really get to my son. He felt her love before he had his hearing aids and after. He was so blessed to have her as he has been blessed to have many teachers this year that have made him feel special and loved and educated.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! Let us celebrate all those who work hard, in the model of Christ the Teacher, despite limitations of resources, to make sure all kids they encounter have a safe place to learn and grow.

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

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