Dear General Ed. Teacher, Thank you for Embracing Inclusion

As his substitute teacher appeared with my son’s hand in a tight grip, I saw the fear in her eyes and heard her say in an overwhelmed and worried tone, “stay here, we have to find your mom.” I could tell she was not experienced teaching a student with Down syndrome and was fearful he would do something unexpected. He didn’t. He walked right over to his brother and I the same way he does every day. 

When we got back to the car, I reflected on that moment and my heart filled with an overflowing amount of gratitude for his teacher, the same as it has many times before. General education teachers that embrace inclusion are the biggest reason inclusive education works. 

Dear Teacher,

Thank you for welcoming my son into your classroom with open arms. Thank you for wanting to teach him even though his learning doesn’t fit into a standardized box. Thank you for celebrating all of the amazing things he brings to your classroom, that would not be there without him. You, teacher, are setting the tone for all of your students to follow. It is you that makes an inclusive classroom work. 

Thank you for having patience when he took longer to transition into the routine of your classroom and was slower to show you all that he is able to do. I know you deeply wanted to hear your name from my son’s sweet lips much sooner than you did. Thank you for never giving up hope and for having the patience and understanding that he will do all things in his own time. 

Thank you for setting high expectations. You expect more from my son than many others who define him solely by his diagnosis. You understand that he is an individual first. Thank you for taking the time to get to know every part of who he is. I noticed, on the first day of school, how you saw right past his diagnosis and into a world of endless possibilities for growth. 

Thank you for caring about my son with your whole heart and for wanting to learn about how to best support his learning needs. I love seeing how excited you are when he meets his goals, both big and small. 

Thank you for trusting that I know my son best and listening to my suggestions. I know it can’t be easy when you hear one thing from me and see another in your classroom. I appreciate your patience and unwavering belief in me as a mom. 

Thank you for the hours you spend on the telephone with me. Thank you for using a reassuring tone when you said, “It is going to be okay.” Secretly, I have moments that I doubt my husband and I are doing the “right” thing for our son and that everything is in fact, going to be okay. Regardless of how many times I get reassurance from my family or friends, it is YOU, teacher, that I so desperately need that reassurance from. 

Please know that I see you working harder and putting in more hours than you would otherwise so that you can manage your inclusive classroom well. I never take your willingness to do extra for granted. I understand that students like my son require teachers to have extra flexibility, patience, and problem-solving skills. When I look at you, teacher, I see a multitasking ninja with a heart of gold. 

General education teachers that embrace inclusion are opening so many doors, not only for the students being included but for all students in their classrooms. Without teachers that know and embrace the value that all students bring to their classroom, inclusive education is not possible. When students with and without disabilities grow-up learning together, they become adults that work well together. Thank you, teacher; you are changing lives and the future of the world! 

Knowing my son had a substitute teacher, I anxiously waited for him to walk out with his class at pick-up. You see, my son has Down syndrome, and I know that many general education teachers have never taught a student with Down syndrome before so I worry how substitutes will react to him being in the classroom all day. 

How My Son is Like A Flower

The first quarter of the school year was disappointing, to say the least. Our chatty boy probably said a total ten words the first three months at school. He rarely participated, did very little academically, and worst of all- his joy was diminishing quickly. It would have been easy to give up on his inclusive placement completely or agree with the team member that suggested he spend more of his day outside of the general education classroom.  But, my husband and I knew our hearts, that our son was not what needed to change, it was his support. We never wavered on that belief.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it is grown, not the flower.” Alexander Den Heijer

You know when you see a quote on social media and you say, “yes!” out loud and share immediately? This is a  quote that resonates with me in regard to my son’s first-grade year. I think it really sums of a lot of inclusive education placements nicely. My goal is never to change my son and make him “fit in.” It is always to work with his team to cultivate an environment in which he can flourish.

Sadly, one of the main pieces of my son’s environment was not helping him to bloom, but rather, causing him to wilt. More times than I want to remember, I had to carry him into school because he refused to walk in on his own. And plenty of times I would cry in the car after dropping him off at school or picking him up. I can still feel the pit in my stomach as I remember our experience.

I felt so helpless.

Even though I knew exactly why my son was struggling and I was advocating on his behalf, it never felt like I was doing enough. If only I had a magic wand and could make it all better. The heavy feeling of helplessness is nothing new to me on this journey, but it will always be the most discouraging part of advocating for my son.

Thankfully, I have learned to appreciate the rainbows between the storms. I am so grateful that my son has a teacher that believed he was capable from the first day she met him. She never once gave up on him, even when it would have been the easy thing to do. Instead, she became his champion and continued to include him in her classroom every day.

Recently, my son received a change in a key piece of his school environment and he is finally blooming again. We have our happy and engaged son back. He wants to go to school and is so proud of himself when he walks out with his class at the end of the day. His happiness and self-confidence are why we never give up. Ever.

One of the greatest gifts my son has given me is perspective. He has taught me to find the positive in every moment and to never stop believing. I know there is always something to be grateful for, even a rough start to the school year. For without all the adversity the beginning of this year presented, I wouldn’t have been pushed to further develop my advocacy skills. And the wrong environment at the beginning of the year made us even more grateful for a better environment and to see our son blooming again, now.