This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I want to say a heartfelt thank you to those who teach and specifically to the teachers who teach or who have taught Rachel. That includes the support personnel like paraprofessionals, speech, occupational and physical therapists, social workers and counselors. I believe teaching is the highest calling. I am glad many of you choose to teach and so many of you have been good teachers for Rachel.
Rachel has had a lot of teachers. While some have definitely been a better match than others, she has had exceptional instruction and supports. Rachel is thriving and progressing and that is a direct result of the powerful early intervention services she received from Special Kids and Families and the Harwood Center. And it is a direct result of the outstanding teachers she has had. When people inquire about Rachel’s academic experiences, I try to make a conscious effort to tell people that Rachel has had really good teachers in her school endeavors.
I believe there are some common threads among these good teachers that have helped make inclusion work for Rachel. I thought I would share some of those common threads.
First, I believe that Good Teachers Teach All Children. Many of Rachel’s best teachers didn’t have specialized “special education” training. However, they believe that all children can learn and that you find a way to teach them and find a way to discover what they have learned. That may not look like all the other colors in the box.
Communication is probably the area of greatest frustration for many parents. One of the most important aspects of Rachel’s positive experiences has been teachers and others who communicate openly. In my blog Communication 101, I talk about the fact that if you do not tell us we do not know. Sometimes a simple email or phone call takes care of a misunderstanding or clarifies otherwise confusing information. On that topic, communication with paraprofessionals really does help. They are often the ones who are writing or supervising the writing of the back and forth communication and one text, phone call or email can prevent an emotional meltdown on my part.
A willingness to admit what they do not know. I loved the English teacher who called me before school ever started and said, “I need your help. I want to teach your daughter and I am not sure that I know how.” We’ve had a number of teachers brave enough to say that out-loud. We can work with that. We can help, and we can do this together. One of Rachel’s teachers told me she was thrilled and terrified when she found out Rachel would be in her class. She knew her from being around her at school, knew us because of our volunteer efforts at school but she had never taught a child with Down syndrome. She told me that she was afraid she would fail Rachel and us. They taught each other and a whole classroom of friends that year. At the end of the year this teacher of 15 years told me that Rachel was the most memorable student she ever had and changed her as a teacher and her expectations for all students in a positive way.
Another common thread for success is teachers who remember Rachel’s IEP is not a list of suggestions. It is a legal contract. There is information in her IEP to help her to maximize her potential but it also provides information in the form of accommodation and modifications to help teachers know how to best meet her needs. I don’t like having to be “That Parent” but if teachers don’t follow Rachel’s IEP, sometimes I have to be that parent.
Think outside of the box.” Rachel’s class was reading “A Christmas Carol.” Her teacher sent me an email (open communication) and said, “I did something different with Rachel on the Christmas Carol test. From her class participation I knew she knew the information and I thought she could take the same test as the other students. I knew she could tell me the answers so I didn’t give her a modified test. I gave the same test as the other students but I let her give me answers orally. She made a 14/15!” The teacher may have been even more excited than we were.
Embrace our idea of inclusion. Inclusion isn’t just about the classroom teaching. It is about the process. It is about the classroom interactions. It is about others seeing Rachel and others with intellectual disabilities as capable. The long-term rewards for Rachel and other students are immeasurable. I suspect the results will include more jobs for individuals with disabilities and the ability to interact with clients and managers who are different. I suspect a group of people who will better navigate the course of life because of their experience in inclusive classrooms and communities.
Sharing our high expectations. Our best partners in the journey have shared or learned to share our high but reasonable expectations. I have saved emails and notes from many we have worked with who say that working with Rachel and seeing what can happen when you try new things, when you don’t accept the status quo but instead set high expectations has changed the way they educate. Others have said they are amazed on a regular basis by what she grasps by osmosis. I’m often told stories of what the other students gain from Rachel. Other have their own little party when they see and hear her demonstrate what she is learning. As a side note, when you see your child demonstrate knowledge they learned from a teacher years before, drop that teacher a note. It means a lot to them. Many of Rachel’s teachers will tell you that we learn a lot from Rachel. Just last week one said, “By the way, just like you said I have learned more from Rachel than I imagined possible. Thank you.”
Today, I want to say thank you to all of the many educators who have shaped Rachel’s life and have joined us on this journey. They are now part of her personal “Friends of Rachel Club.” Many if not most continue to follow her progress and be involved in our lives at some level. If you are in her club, go ahead and mark graduation for May 20, 2018. She’ll be expecting you.
Final note, people tell me they stress about what they will do to recognize/honor/thank their child’s teachers. When you have a child with special needs, that group is bigger than the average student and it can be very expensive. We’ve done any number of things for Rachel’s teachers from serving an annual appreciation meal to gift cards, plants and homemade treats. I did a little research and one of the number one thing teacher’s said they wanted: a card from the student/family. We made Rachel’s teachers a thank you card with pictures this year and we’re adding a little “grand” or “star”burst candy to the envelope. Just say thank you! They’ll appreciate being appreciated.