How Raising My Child with Special Needs Transformed Me as a Teacher

How Raising My Child with Special Needs Transformed Me as a Teacher

Welcome to Day 25 of the 31 Days of Random Reflections on Raising and Homeschooling a Child with Special Needs. You can find the main page for this series here.

Returning to the public classroom after three years raising a child with special needs made me a different teacher. It made me a different human being, but more so, a brand spanking new never-to-return-to-old-ways-again educator.

Returning to the public classroom after our experiences, the sights we witnessed, and the sounds we overheard forced me to become the teacher I only wish I knew to be after graduation. I am forever wrecked.

What I noticed about the school system that wasn’t obvious to me before becoming a mother to a child with special needs:

  • Limited resources for children with special needs. I thought I already knew this, but I really didn’t realize the state of emergency the system is in for all children, especially for those who need extra support. I only truly noticed when there were more and more children with needs in our classrooms with each passing year and nothing changing in terms of personnel and materials.
  • Inclusion is a farce. I have always considered myself an inclusive teacher. I enrolled in inclusive education courses because I believe that schools should reflect real life where [ideally] no one is excluded. But, I learned that school does not reflect real life. Not even close. 

Inclusive Education Canada defines inclusive education as: “all students attend and are welcomed by their neighbourhood schools in age-appropriate, regular classes and are supported to learn, contribute and participate in all aspects of the life of the school.” At the heart of inclusive education is the idea that despite being placed together in one space, children’s individual gifts and talents are supported and celebrated.

I realized very quickly upon my return that this was just not doable in a system with large classroom sizes and minimal support for teachers and students. I honestly saw, for the first time, the real benefit of “closed” or self-contained “special education” classrooms. There have always been a few in the schools I worked in and have seen first hand the difference smaller groups with individualized attention can make.

The idea of inclusion is lovely if it is adequately supported. As the system stands at the time of this writing, it is not. As a result, inclusive education is a joke. Placing children with special needs in a room with other children does not make the classroom inclusive.

  • Inaccessible. This is crazy. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before. But, schools are incredibly inaccessible — in all sense of the word. For one, the buildings are physically inaccessible. Most don’t have elevators or a way for children to get to the second (or subsequent) floor. Schools with a child with physical disabilities usually bring the necessary materials/equipment down to the first floor  — the only place the child can roam around. Inaccessibility can also be true for schools intended for children with special needs in terms of changing spaces and play equipment in addition to how he gets around the building.

Further, public schools are run by boards, who are run by ministers in suits who may or may not have entered a classroom since they were last students. It’s difficult to be heard by school boards, whether a parent or school personnel. Bringing about change requires much effort that parents and teachers do not have time for, thereby allowing for status quo.

How I changed as a teacher after becoming a mother to a child with special needs:

  • Compassion: I developed deep compassion and love for students. It was difficult for me to discipline as per regulations when I knew (and know) children were (and are) just learning to find themselves in their short life on this earth. Kindergarteners have only been on the earth 5 years. Sixth graders 12 at most. That’s a lot to expect from little people in under 15 years of life.
  • Empathy. I suddenly understood parents and their struggles in raising a child. In parent-teacher interviews, I’d hear the stories of how far their children had come — some having struggled since birth. I couldn’t ignore their past as I once did. This was part of the child’s story — an important part that dictated how I was meant to approach this child’s learning for the rest of the year.
  • Non-conformity. I found myself struggling with a strong resistance to rules and regulations that shut children down — especially those who were non- or minimally verbal. Insisting on behaving this way, sitting this way, walking down the hallway this way, lining up here — this way, the expectation of hand-raising and shushing them when they spoke out of turn was not something I could easily digest. I felt myself slowly stepping out of the box, allowing certain behaviors and purposely choosing to ignore others.
  • Vocal. Although I was always opinionated and known to speak my mind, I found myself raising questions hoping to refocus time and attention to the issues that mattered. I had little tolerance for wasting children’s time and tried to redirect staff meetings or discussions with leaders to true academic problems.
  • Frustrated. I had no tolerance for outdated technology, equipment, materials, and ideologies. It was unacceptable to me that we had to constantly struggle with technology that was only available to us on a weekly basis, only to find it wasn’t working when we finally had access to it. I also could not tolerate old ideas about education in a world that was quickly buzzing past our window.
  • Paradigm shift. I returned to the classroom with the eyes of mother hoping for the best experience for her child. But, I quickly noticed how stifling a system it is. How a system that claims to value differences and cares for its community only confines loving teachers to an inadequately equipped classroom, forces them to pour money out of their own pockets, and work endless amounts of hours with little to no support continues to run in the same way it did back in the early 1900s is just incomprehensible to me.

When I returned to the public classroom three years after my son was born, I felt the immediate knowing I no longer belonged. I had toyed with the idea of homeschooling for years, but I knew that when it would be my son’s turn for “schooling”, I could not close my eyes to what I knew.

I often asked myself: Are we raising robots? Military soldiers? Or, human beings? Children filled with wonder?

Most importantly, I asked, Why am I going along with the status quo?

I realized that I was one person, and I was not enough.

I was not going to make a dent with my vision for education. The system is too large and too broken, and I didn’t have the strength to begin a movement to fix it. My hands were full.

I know that I can, however, make a dent and begin a movement within my own home, one person at a time, one tiny minute at a time. And, that’s what I’ve done. That’s what I’m doing.

I decided to leave the big systemic changes to those with stronger arms and a bigger army than mine. I pray for this generation of teachers to be given the courage and grit to start and keep their movement going. It’s time for huge changes in education. This generation has the right overall vision already. I have great confidence we will begin seeing what education in this century should be. It has to. Our children depend on us.

Here in Quebec, it’s already happening. Teachers are not putting up with irrational requests anymore. They have started a movement under the hashtag WeNeedToTalk in an effort to get leaders to hear their true concerns in the wake of new contract negotiations.

There is a need for a new vision in education. I cannot be on the battleground at this point in my life. But, from the sidelines, I can cheer the warriors on.

When public education is ready for my child, I hope to be able to release him and let him fly into it. Until then, I will continue to transform our little corner of the world.

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