This past February, Addison started preschool in the EEE (Essential Early Education) program at the local public elementary school. On her third birthday, she was cut off from the Early Intervention (EI) that we had done weekly for the past three years, and all of her therapies resumed at preschool with new therapists in more of a classroom setting.
She was ready for it. Only two mornings at week from 8:30-10:30 Addison absolutely adored going to school. As an added bonus, it was awesome to have one-on-one time with Carter during those mornings.
I was sentimental thinking of her growing up to the point where she was ready for school, but I didn't give too much thought to the quality of the teachers I was entrusting her to because they were awesome, following on the heels of three years of awesome therapists. They bent over backwards to make sure I knew that in their classroom Addison was loved, and they were so proud of all her hard work and progress. I attended IEP meetings, I went to a day of school, one of the therapists came to our house once a week for continued speech therapy. I had a good handle on what was going on when I dropped her off, and I was so thankful for the incredible care that my daughter was getting.
February- June was full of school mornings where I happily dropped her off and thought no further about it. Her teachers were amazing, the classroom was wonderful, and the environment was the type of environment where Addison thrived.
We then had a slight break before summer school began. I had a choice to not send her to summer school if I didn't want to, but breaks aren't really good for Addison because not only are we NOT progressing- we are losing ground (especially in speech.)
The first day of summer school arrived and once again, I dropped her off- cute outfit (check), pink backpack (check), appropriate snack (check)- not thinking beyond that. Happy to resume my mornings with Carter and looking forward to seeing her smile when I would come pick her up- I gave no thought to the new classroom, teacher, and school except for transferring all the feelings I had for the last classroom over to this one.
Until a couple weeks in when I stopped to really think about the impression that I was getting from the teacher. Nothing serious. Nothing earth shattering. I just got the impression that she didn't really care as much about Addison as I was used to all of her other teachers caring.
Now I am the first to admit- I am new at this. I make mistakes- lots of them.
I am also the first to admit- I am EXTREMELY protective of Addison. I am very sensitive to her disability and when given the choice I wrap her up into a protective layer of Mama Bear and refuse to let the world in- just in case she could somehow be harmed or even just not understood.
After an innocent interaction with the teacher that kind of pushed me over the edge, I was imagining the worst about this classroom. (Side bar: I know now that in this sort of situation you should NOT post about the specific incident on your facebook page. You can't truly convey attitude, ton of voice, and body language impression or every detail of the situation in a facebook status which means that a little war in the comments benefits absolutely no one because no one can really see the whole story. Sometimes the real story is not in the tellable facts of the story. Not to mention, it is probably not very respectful of the teacher. Consider this one of my mistakes.)
Because of this impression I had gotten from the teacher, all of a sudden I had a panic attack- I drop Addison off, pick her up, and SHE CAN'T TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS IN BETWEEN.
Good or bad.
I started thinking about stories of friends who found out that their children's teachers put the child in "solitary confinement" i.e. the closet to calm them down. And then left them there most of the morning. I thought of horror stories happening to children with special needs simply because the teacher could get away with it- a nonverbal child can't tattle on abuse.
I thought of sweet Addison- not able to defend herself- not able to help herself- not able to tell me if there was ever any sort of problem, and I realized how hard this school thing was going to be for the next fifteen years. (Yes, I know that my imagination is extremely overactive.)
This is so much more than dressing Addison to the nines, placing a tiny backpack on her back, and sending her off to play with a new set of toys. This is a whole new level of trust. A new level of vulnerability. A new level of growth.
After I calmed down from the "impression" that I had gotten from the teacher, I came up with a plan to set my mind back at ease because after all- what do first impressions really mean? I wanted to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to show this teacher that I am an annoying, over-the-top parent that will be involved in as many details as possible and who cares very deeply about what is going on. I wanted to watch Addison in the classroom and truly get a feel for her reaction to the environment. I wanted to nip my overactive imagination in the bud and bring myself back to reality.
So I asked if I could shadow Addison for an entire morning of class and which day would work better for the teacher? The teacher looked surprised but gladly set up a morning that would work for me to come shadow Addison.
Turns out? This classroom and the teachers working with Addison in summer school are awesome too.
I watched Addison confidently play with toys and books and then PUT THEM BACK where she got them. (WHAT?) I watched the teachers work with Addison both with therapy and play and it was clear that while they don't know Addison very well yet, they respect and care for her a great deal. I got a better feel for the environment of the class- something I couldn't sense from a quick drop off/pick up with a little boy attempting to run to the farthest corners of the school on my watch. Clearly, this environment was a positive, well-supported, happy place where Addison was in her element.
I sat beaming with pride as she pulled out the lowest chair at the table, sat down, and played with the play dough- making "P" sounds. When she wanted a new toy? She left her chair, carefully retrieved a basket, balanced it all the way back to the table, neatly sat back down in her chair, and independently began to play again.
They practiced walking up stairs with Addison, and she did better than she has ever done at home. At snack time there were other kids that needed more help than she did, so she was left alone with her open cup, and she didn't spill one drop (charity begins at home, young lady!) When she was ready for story time, she sorted through the stack of mats until she found the one she liked. When I saw her carrying the mat of her choice toward the story time corner, I noticed it said Aa Ants (Addison) on it. I don't know if she recognized the picture of ants, the Aa, or her name, but I had no idea she could do that.
I realized a few very important things during this shadowing.
1. First impressions can be wrong. Very wrong.
2. Addison excels at school, and I should continue giving her every possible opportunity to be in this sort of social environment.
3. I need to continue to grow as a new parent to this school thing- which means understanding and appreciating everything these teachers are doing for my child beyond a cute gift on teacher appreciation day.
4. I have been underestimating Addison in a couple of areas- her ability to work neatly and clean up after herself, and the need to begin working on letters and more picture recognition.
For three years, I sat through (most of) four appointments a week with different therapists, and I could watch and listen to every single thing. I got spoiled. No, I cannot control every second of Addison's education, and I don't feel that I have the expertise to give her at home everything that the EEE program can offer her at school. I don't know how I am going to handle every "first impression gone wrong" in the future for Addison's education, but I am very much at peace again about summer school.
The funny thing is- I used to be a teacher. But I never really appreciated the huge level of trust being put on me by the parents with their children or even remotely understood how to work the parent side of the parent/teacher relationship. True, I was teaching high school, but does this need to trust the teachers ever go away?
If you are a teacher- especially a special ed teacher. THANK YOU. I know you are putting huge amounts of effort and care into my child. Please be patient with me (and parents like me.) I want the very best for my child, and sometimes I get off the mark with my attempts to protect my sweet Addison who cannot protect herself. I understand if our personalities don't gel or if we aren't besties from the moment we meet, but all that really matters to me is that you care for my child and her need to learn. I vow to you that I will do my part and focus on my continued need to learn- how I can best be there for Addison...and best help and appreciate those who are trying to help her.
Note: This is not to start a debate about homeschooling vs private school vs public school. I understand and respect that we all make different choices in these areas. This EEE program is the right choice for my family right now. The point of this post is really to talk about my adjustment and control issues of letting Addison go as she grows- not to spark a debate.