“I Am Humbled by the Sacred Trust Placed in Special-Education Teachers”
Parents of special needs children never get time away from the stress of dealing with behavior challenges. So before you say, “OMG, those parents are driving me nuts!” remember that they trust us to care for their loved ones — and that’s a gift.
For more than two decades, I’ve worked as the head of special education for a high school abroad. I am on the front lines, teaching students with autism, and even sometimes wearing protective equipment, dodging injury, and practicing containments with the most challenging and challenged students at our school. I won’t even pretend to say it’s not painful to navigate the role of educator-turned-safety-officer when things go wrong. Nothing keeps me up at night more than recalling a violent incident, taking one of my team to the hospital because of an injury incurred, nothing. It is the greatest cause of stress in my position.
But I am also a parent, and so I see that my stress as an educator has boundaries, but the stress of a parent is infinite — and often unappreciated or discounted. I think it is critical for educators to keep this in mind and so I ask the teachers at my school to answer these questions alongside me:
Do you recall leaving your firstborn for the first time? Maybe you left for a quick date night or a trip to the mall, which felt momentous at the time. With whom did you leave your baby? Likely, it was the most trusted person you know — a grandparent, an aunt, or a bestie. Still, you worried.
And chances are the worrying continued straight through to your child’s school days, when you left the little person you love most with a teacher you hardly knew.
Now imagine that the child you are dropping off is high needs. Imagine that he or she could have a meltdown at any moment due to the low-pressure air system or a tag digging into their back or just because they wanted to hang out and snuggle with mom that day.
Whatever the specific circumstances and diagnosis, that mom or dad appreciates the daily risk of potential disaster at school. Nevertheless, they bring their child to school because they trust you will take the best care possible of their little loves. Let me reiterate that, they trust you.
Teenagers, at the best of times, are a challenge. Mood swings, arrogance, etc. all play into the day-to-day raising of a neurotypical teen. Now, what if that teenager has nonverbal autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? What you, as a teacher, see a few times a day — the incidents that cause you to stress and to judge how that child is being raised — that behavior is seen and lived by that child’s loving, caring parent a thousand times a day, seven days a week.
How we, as teachers, are allowed to manage behavior is very different from how parents deal with it at home. We follow our training within the legal parameters of the education act. Parents may have a very different way of handling similar behaviors. That does not make it wrong or worthy of discernment. In most cases, it does not merit our criticism or disdain either.
So, no, I am not diminishing what we do every day by comparing it to what parents deal with day in and day out. What I am doing is asking you to keep in your mind and in your heart the fact that these parents trust you, the same way you trusted someone to care for your child on the first day of preschool.
It is a challenge beyond description, I agree, but it is also the greatest compliment if you really think about it.