“Welcome to the year your baby will be born!” said the prenatal yoga instructor one brilliantly sunny January morning eleven years ago. All around the classroom we gasped or laughed nervously, teared up in grateful disbelief or smiled blissfully, simply knowing it to be true.
Never mind those resolutions about eating healthier and being more goal-oriented at work. Such a major turning point was waiting for us by year’s end, there was barely any point in resolving to change. Change was coming for us, resolutions or no.
I’m hard pressed to think of another new year where such definitive change awaited at the end of it. Well, except perhaps this one.
I have an awful lot of feelings about finally embarking toward a career I love at age 45, many of which involve shame and embarrassment. What took me so long? What was I doing with myself all those years? All that education, all those accomplishments, and here I am a 45-year-old student teacher? Don’t look at me.
There’s pride and gratitude too, of course, at having finally found a meaningful path that flows so earnestly with my true skill set and passions. And I’m very good at it. I just am. I’ve never in my entire life had such strong, simple conviction of my own self-worth. It is an amazing feeling to have after all these years, and better late than never.
And…there’s fear. Once I’ve earned my M.Ed. and endorsement at the end of the summer, the goal is to find a job as a special ed teacher. And then…well…I’ll be The Special Ed Teacher. Not only that, I’ll be The NEW Special Ed Teacher. Everybody loves The New Special Ed Teacher, right?
As a special ed parent myself, I know frighteningly well how much responsibility is going to rest on those shoulders. The special ed teacher can make or break an entire school year. The special ed teacher can make or break an entire child. There are immense and terrifying expectations in front of you. If you’re lucky, there is support. But it’s just as likely you’ll find yourself surrounded by a school community that waits anxiously at the sidelines, hoping you will be magic but worrying or maybe even cynically expecting that you will crash and burn instead.
One of my instructors last quarter, a Ph.D. student who got a very early start in her special ed career, was surprised to hear that I find this degree of responsibility daunting. “I guess I was lucky in some ways, being that young and naïve when I first started,” she said. “I just went in and WAS the teacher. I was the leader. I set that tone, and everything just sort of fell into place. I had no idea at the time how arrogant that probably seemed, but I did it and it worked.”
Can I do that? Can I brazenly walk into a school with the hopeful/cynical/resentful eyes of teachers, parents, administrators and aides on me and just…be the teacher? Would it work? I’ve seen new teachers get their asses handed to them, confident and skilled or not. I want to believe that somehow I’ll be able to avoid the typical pitfalls with my special ed teacher superpowers. But it’s not an easy world I’m venturing into.
Yesterday, for example, a car and a bike collided on my street. The driver was hysterical and furious...with ME, because she'd seen me starting to back out of my long driveway and had slammed on her brakes for that reason (even though I wasn't in the street and had, in fact, stopped backing out to check the road and was never in any danger of hitting her). The cyclist collided into the back of her car because he couldn't stop in time. He wasn’t hurt. But this driver came up to my car, banged on the window and scolded me so relentlessly that I believed for one terrible moment that I was the one who'd collided with the bike.
Somehow, in the face of that accusatory scolding, I was able to be entirely calm and treat her with kindness and sincerity. Everything got resolved nicely. The driver warmed up and stopped trying to fight with me as she realized there was no fight to be had. The cyclist enjoyed regaling us all with stories about the collisions and near misses he's had. I overheard the driver talking to her insurance company and gradually realizing, as she told her story, that it wasn’t actually my fault. And when the police officer finally arrived on the scene, he was as kind and reassuring to me as if he was my dad or my coach or something. All's well that ends well.
But the whole experience left me feeling shaken, a little angry, and afraid. There are people out there just READY to be that angry at me, READY to blame me for a terrible thing that I truly, truly didn't do. And here I am, poised to assume the role of The New Special Ed Teacher.
There's a certain parallel there that's striking. People blame teachers in much the same way that people blame the other driver in a collision. And whether we're right or wrong, it really doesn't matter very much. People see a teacher and they see...what? A lazy union member who needs to be held accountable? A cruel standardized-test-giving Common Core lackey? Every bad teacher they or their children ever had?
I don’t blame them for their mistrust. As teachers, we do hold a tremendous amount of power. We have the power to define our students, almost. Each one brings a wide spectrum of strengths and challenges to the table. What are we able to see in them? Which parts are we able to bring out and which parts do we inadvertently inhibit? What will we notice and what will we completely miss about them? And what will we report back to their parents?
I’ve had teachers tell me wonderful, glowing things about The Boy and I’ve had teachers regard him as if he were the second coming of Voldemort. At a recent IEP meeting with The Boy in attendance, I cheerfully asked the team to share something they love about working with him…and was met with a long, awkward silence. It’s not that they dislike him, exactly. I think the IEP process, and school in general, has just become so deficit-focused that it barely occurs to anyone to remember that there actually are positive things to say about the students.
Practically every teacher I’ve ever met – and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve done this myself sometimes – labors under the delusion and the extreme frustration that the parents somehow don’t see what we see or don’t take it as seriously as we believe they should. We’ve all, at some point, bought into the misguided notion that somehow the parents don’t know or don’t care (or REFUSE to know and REFUSE to care). And so, with the best of intentions, I’m sure, we special ed parents often find ourselves on the rather unpleasant receiving end of a well-meaning “wake up call” from the school.
I said this years ago, and I’ll say it again:
[I]nstead of assuming the parents don’t know or don’t care, consider the possibility that we do know and care; that the misbehavior breaks our hearts; that we do everything we can to help our kids learn to function within the parameters of “normal” but it doesn’t happen overnight; that we can barely take a step without weighing the implications. This tends to drain our energy for faking shock and remorse over our children’s every autistic move in public. But for Zod’s sake, it doesn’t mean we don’t care.
So, yeah. I get it. I get why parents who’ve been subjected to these misunderstandings and assumptions of bad parenting year after year are going to be a little prickly when The New Special Ed Teacher comes along.
I want so deeply to be worthy of this task. I believe that I am. But I also understand that even with all our skills and passion; even with our resolve to be Jaime Escalante Meets Anne Sullivan Meets Mr. Kotter, no one gets it right 100% of the time. There are so many variables, so many contexts and unknowns and unavoidable learning curves. All I can resolve at this point is to bring my absolute best to the job, and to ebb and flow with the challenges with a loving and fearless heart.
Things will go wrong. Things will go right. I will bend and change and learn and get better and stronger every year.
Just like I have as a mother. Could I have known, all those years ago in that sunny little prenatal yoga class, all the ups and downs of the road ahead? No, I could not. Did I pretty much kick its ass anyway? Yes. Yes I did. And this year, I resolve to do it again.