The classroom experience I want for your child with special needs
For a parent of a child with special needs, it can be hard to spend time apart while he or she attends school for the majority of the day. Former superintendent Dr. Gregory Firn shares the keys to building a successful relationship with your child’s teachers.
Ask a superintendent about parental engagement and you will hear sincere optimism about the role, responsibility, and commitment to open, transparent two-way communication. Ask a superintendent about the experiences they envision, expect and desire for each student and you will hear much the same. However, when pressed to be specific about students with special needs, the answers may seem, well, less certain or hopeful.
Please don’t misread this as disparaging towards educators, it is not meant to be. Rather, it is from personal experience as a superintendent that I felt in many cases, inadequate and unprepared to provide a thoughtful, informed response that didn’t come across as trite or pithy.
It’s not that I didn’t care or consider each of our students as important, valued, and certainly worthy of our very best – day in and day out. It was more a matter of not knowing what I didn’t know. In my 35 years of public service and less than three in the private sector, my awareness, understanding and knowledge of what our students with disabilities experience became better informed through open communication. To that end, I offer insight to parent-teacher relationships that each parent and their child experience while in our care.
Allies, not adversaries
For our parents of students with disabilities and their educators, it is extremely important for advocacy to create allies, not adversaries. This mindset must be first and foremost at the front of each interaction by educators with parents or learner guardians.
Alliances balance strengths and weaknesses or possibly better put, assets and deficits. Parents bring a unique and profound knowledge about their child, whereas educators possess a unique and profound knowledge about teaching and learning. In an alliance, there is an inherent need, commitment, and obligation to transparency, grounded in constant and consistent communication.
A parent’s knowledge about their child is instrumental to equipping our educators with the information they need to meet the unique needs of each student.
There are two steps that should be taken to effectively transfer knowledge from parent to educators: 1) educators must seek first to understand before being understood by the parent and 2) they must hear each question from the parent as if hearing it for the very first time, regardless of how many times it may have been asked before.
Share experiences, ask (and answer) questions
While each individual student is equally important, educators work with several students in a given day. As my experience validated, even the most conscientious, caring, and committed educator may not always have the same information or experience with your child that you would like them to have.
Questions are our friends and questions help us clarify our thinking. Whether educators ask or not, parents should always offer an answer to this question, “tell me something about your daughter/son that will help me better meet their learning needs?”
Building dreams, together
I want to affirm that the highest aspirations and biggest dreams parents have for their child are important to us. Educators see the possibilities, the potentials, and sometimes certain realities that many parents know in their heart of hearts, but they may be challenging to acknowledge. I hope parents can trust educators to bring out the best of their child that they see at home, while they learn and grow within the classroom environment.
The aspirations that parents have for their child with a disability must not be discounted, discouraged, or dismissed. Educators by their nature are optimistic and hopeful of “better.” To that end, I hope parents can share a sense of growth and improvement towards their child’s goals in the classroom, as well as the dreams their child has for their future.
I am confident and remain steadfast that parents as allies will create an enduring partnership, leading to a greater sense of trust, transparency, and progress towards meeting or exceeding the expectations and needs of each student.