I was invited to speak at a school last week, as part of their staff’s professional development/team building day. A special needs preschool, it was similar to the preschool Owen attended in mid-town Toronto. This one is located in an older suburb in the west end.
Perhaps I will blog about the overall experience in a later post. (I usually leave these things feeling depleted, but that day I left feeling energized and excited. And so impressed by the passion and dedication to the students and their families, expressed and clearly demonstrated by the staff.) For now, a small epiphany:
For the talk, I made notes ahead of time to cover my usual topics of fake work, cheerful pretend, plus a new one: the tyranny of unlimited potential. While I was writing these out I thought a lot harder about teachers and therapists than I ever had before. I put myself in their shoes and wondered what would be useful, how some of the points might be received. Thought about what they might know already and what will be new. The director of the school is very enthusiastic about her staff and shared with me ahead of time what a wonderful group of people they are – I pictured them as I prepared my notes, wanting to meet them where they are and honour the experiences and wisdom they would bring.
For the very first time, I appreciated how teachers and therapists may end up at a school like the one I visited. Years of training and career preparation. An earnest desire to work with this particular population of children. Perhaps the fulfillment of a dream since they were young. For some, they may indeed think of it as a divine calling. And most are probably pretty good at it.
Then for no particular reason, my mind wandered to the parents of the students who attend schools like this. I think I can safely say that, in contrast, none of them signed up for this job of having a child with severe disabilities. That none of them ever really wanted this kind of life and that none of them prefer to be doing ‘this’ instead of what they imagined when they were young. (I’m not talking about having the children themselves – I’m talking about all the work.)
Eagerness and weary resignation collide in a perfect storm! No matter how quickly everyone gets on the same page in terms of goals for the child, there’s an inherent disconnect. A half-empty/half-full friction that underscores everything. Like being forced to volunteer for something you don’t want to do, and being surrounded by people for whom being there is a choice. A pleasure, even. And to make it worse, they can seem so damn enthusiastic!! I can remember that, in the midst of still coming to terms with the reality of my new life with Owen, I found it hard to relate or connect with the teachers in our preschool.
Still processing what this might mean. I wonder how knowing this can improve the relationship between the two groups. How could the staff in particular respond to this disconnect? Any ideas?
(Note: I have edited this post to be more clear that I am not talking about the staff, students or parents of a particular school, and these musings are based on my own recollections. Apologies for any confusion.)
There’s such a big difference between the job you go home from and the life you go home to… Pears/tangerines.
I have some thoughts on this, Jennifer. Although we are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and yes have definitely chosen to work with children who have physical and /or developmental challenges, we–and I will now switch to the singular that I can be confident about—I am more often trying to meet a parent where they are at. And give them the space to let me know where they are coming from. It is not unusual for me to use humour in discussions with parents.
At Silver Creek we take our lead from our parents and are focused on functional independence for the children. And this looks different for every child. Generally the approach is practical and pragmatic with each family.
I had my own epiphany when I was on the delivery table with my first child. Having worked at large rehab facilities/hospitals for children as a physiotherapist before I had my own children, I was use to writing out serious home programs for parents. There may have been 25 ‘suggestions’ on the pages. I swear that as my daughter was placed in my arms, I asked for forgiveness from all the Moms and Dads (mostly Moms) whom I had instructed in these onerous home program suggestions. Absurd. Ridiculous. Embarrassing. I somehow knew from the moment of my own child’s birth that what I had expected of parents was horribly WRONG. The enormity of being responsible for my newborn, typical child was already overwhelming me, and I was asking other parents who were experiencing challenges with their children every day to do certain exercises? # of repetitions? and expect a certain progression?? So, I came from a very different head space as a physio once I was also a mother. I am sure others may have not have needed the experience of motherhood to be more practical and thoughtful in their approach, but it was true enlightenment for me. The perfect storm can be mediated by understanding, experience and fostering an environment of trust and honesty.
Very well written, as usual, Jennifer. Susan, my experience of working fifteen years in a child and youth psychiatric hospital mirrors what you say. I entered into the job as a parent and found that to be the best training for the position. Many of my co-workers were childless and many were single. They were smart, well trained and well educated but in many instances lacked the ability to truly empathize with the parents. It was frustrating to watch them work on their guidelines to be sent home with their patients and knowing that they were impractical. What sounds good on paper doesn’t always translate into practicality in a home. I guess that this sounds harsh but until you have walked the walk -( the sleep deprivation, the worries, fears and hopes for your child – and I am not even close to being able to empathize myself with what Jennifer and other wonderful mothers like her have been through )- then I don’t know how effective your counselling can be.
@Susan @Bruce thank you for your comments! I agree that parents/educators having a shared experience strengthens trust and lends validity to the advice or recommendations being given. If this was a mandatory criteria though, the job pool would shrink considerably :)
Some ideas occur to me to help minimize the gap:
About the last suggestion, Jen, I have some concerns. I remember once when the augmentative communication team came to my place from TVCC and they began asking me a million questions about what “I” wanted for Sophie, what I thought would be useful, what my goals were. I had NO CLUE what to answer. I had expected that they would work with Sophie, see what she could/could not do, and then come up with some parameters. As it was, they threw at me everything they had. I had a massive headache at the end and learned nothing. The overwhelm kept me away from those people for years. Somewhere between probing a parent for ideas and providing guidance based on expertise, there is a happy balance.
I guess you lost me at “they’re all so damn enthusiastic!!”. Yes “we” chose this. Yes “we” look at your kids with all the best intentions. Yes “we” are skilled at sifting through a puzzle and trying put the pieces together – some of those pieces may even be helpful for the future. “We” are also guilty of seeing a child as a child. “We” see where they are at and accept them for who they are, “we” expect – as with any child – that there will be learning and growth – no matter what that may look like in it’s traditional or non-traditional form.
“We” may have been accused of a lot of things in our lives, but “we” will not bow our heads in shame about being “damn enthusiastic!!”. In fact,( I ) can’t think of one child in the hundreds that I have had the honour of playing with, that was upset about my damn enthusiasm. Your story and honesty is an excellent tool for self- reflection and adjustment. “We” hold a role in your child’s life that is different from yours. “We” strive for a partnership in hopes that there is not a “we” and “you” but rather an “us”. “Disconnect” intrudes when trust and communication are broken down or….. never established.
Hi Lois! No offense intended – was trying to dissect where some of the disconnect can come from. For parents who are already uneasy with their own situations, I think it can be hard to appreciate the enthusiasm. Can possibly be a a source of further distance between parent and caregiver/staff, if not tempered by meeting the parent where they actually are. My impression of Silver Creek is that you do indeed work hard to do just that – preparing for my talk reminded me of the disconnect I felt when Owen was younger. I could certainly have been clearer that I wasn’t talking about specific staff or parents… I will correct the original post to make sure I don’t give this impression!