My first introduction to the teacher dance was when my daughter was about to enter kindergarten. Prior to that Amanda had been in the nurturing environment of a “Mommy and Me” preschool, where the teacher had actually sought us out on the playground and asked if we would be interested in attending.
Amanda has Down syndrome. At the time she also had a tracheostomy, a surgically created hole in the front of her neck that allowed her to breathe. This teacher was not daunted in any way. She loved Amanda. She liked me enough to offer me a job as “craft table assistant.” We were one big, happy, nurturing family. And then there was kindergarten.
We lived in Southern California when Amanda started kindergarten. In our school district, children with special needs were not typically included in the general education classroom. Usually, in a segregated classroom, way down at the end of the hall, multiple grade levels of children were taught by one teacher with a few aides.
So Amanda was to be the only child with significant special needs included in her school. We were assigned to a classroom with a teacher planning to retire after that year. She told us: “Well, I don’t know how much she will get out of it, but as long as she doesn’t disrupt the classroom I am willing to give it a try.”
The year was rocky.
The “behavior modification” program—green card, yellow card, red card—had no modifying effect on Amanda’s behavior. If you’re not familiar with this system, it’s where every child starts off on green. If during the day the child is a bit testy, or not following along, she is told to move her clip to yellow. If she is being downright ornery, she is told to move it to red. There were days when Amanda just moved her clip to red right away. She was not concerned by this in the least. I, on the other hand, lived in constant fear as all the chickadees were led to the parent pickup line at the end of the day with green stickers on their shirts if they had been good little students. There were many days with no green sticker; you can imagine my horror.
By March, the teacher said, “You know, she is able to do everything the other children are doing, she just chooses not to sometimes, and it drives me crazy that I can’t get her to follow along.” A breakthrough, perhaps, but by this point the lines in the sand had been drawn and Amanda was not going to let her win every time.
At the end-of-year retirement party and summer celebration, the teacher said to me, “I am very happy I had Amanda in my class. I learned a lot from her. She really surprised me.” That was gratifying to hear, but we went through the kindergarten year from hell to get there.
From that experience, I learned that the teacher makes or breaks the academic experience. Amanda is my oldest child, so back then I was under the illusion everyone would be amazed by her achievements. All kids are supposed to come in with the same glowing expectations from their teachers, right? They are empty vessels to be filled with the love of learning and knowledge. They should get the benefit of the doubt if they appear cranky; everyone has a bad day.
But after that kindergarten ordeal, I wasn’t so sure what the next years would bring. I wondered: Will the bright light within my child be seen? Will my darling be challenged but not overwhelmed? Will the teacher employ respect and encouragement, not embarrassment and negativity?
I think these worries tap dance around in every parent’s head from time to time. As a mother of a child with special needs, I have another set of questions: Will my child be a member of the classroom and not just physically in it? Will she be viewed as an asset and not a liability? Will the teacher promote social acceptance? Will expectations be set at the appropriate level?
My husband, Brian, and I decided to leave the sun and sand of California and move to the city of snow and cloud cover when Amanda was heading into second grade. Our Central New York school district supports inclusion of children with special needs in the general classroom. Resource and special education professionals help with curriculum adaptation and classroom strategies. Classroom teachers have had children with special needs in the past. Amanda did not have to be a trail blazer.
If we had begun our educational experience here, I probably would not bear the scars of kindergarten-teacher trauma, but we didn’t and I do. So I wait, just like every other parent in my school district, for the letter that appears the week before school starts, telling me which teachers will embark on a scholarly voyage with Amanda. I hope they have their navigational tools packed. I hope they bring a spirit of excitement and enthusiasm. I hope it is a good year. As a parent, that is all I can do: wait, and dance with the worries round and round in my head. ■
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
(Photo above: © Sparkia | Dreamstime.com)