Ontario Education: Open Letter To The Teachers At My Sons’ Schools

3196112204_8903a3cdce_zDear teachers,

There are many people who think you have a cushy job, with seven-hour workdays and two months off every summer. They say that you are overpaid, underworked, lazy and uncaring. Any time there is a labour dispute in the Ontario education system, like there is now, you are accused of trying to suck the taxpayer dry in order to line your own pockets.

Let me tell you what I think, teachers.

I think you guys totally ROCK.

Since my firstborn son started school in 2007, I have gained an appreciation for just how hard you work. I have come to understand that your workdays extend far beyond classroom hours, that report cards and IEP’s involve a lot more than simply punching data into a computer, and that a great deal of thought and time goes into the lessons you teach and the projects you assign.

Being a teacher is HARD. You have to juggle the needs of your students, the demands of their parents and the rules of the Ontario education system. While you understand that other people sometimes have bad days, you are on your game all the time. You spend your days doing a job that most people wouldn’t want for all the money in the world – which is kind of ironic, considering that many think you should be paid less.

While people across Ontario have been hating on you for pursuing your right to do your jobs properly, you have kept going, helping my boys learn and grow, giving your work the same dedication and focus that you always have.  Here are just a few of the things you have been doing, over and above teaching my kids.

* You have taken my son and rest of the track and field team to their competition events. Even now that the competitions are over, you are still showing up at school early so that those kids who want to continue their morning runs can do so.

* You have taken your eighth grade classes on their graduation trips, and you have been hard at work planning extra-special graduation days for them.

* You came to school early one morning on a day that you were not assigned to teach, just so that you could fulfil your before-school yard duty and ensure the safety of my son and his friends.

* You hefted a cardboard box out of your car one Monday morning, and when I asked what it was, you said that it was projects you had graded over the weekend, as well as materials for an upcoming student assignment that you had prepared and photocopied on your own time.

* You dug around in your classroom searching for a book that you knew my son would enjoy reading during the summer.

* You organized a water play day for the younger kids, and you allowed my son and his classmates to help run it, so that they could develop their leadership skills.

* You have not gone to bed before midnight for the last week, because you’ve been putting together picture slideshows and videos for your Kindergarten class’s graduation celebration.

* You have been tirelessly working on ways to help my autism boy develop his speech and communication skills, and you have been helping him develop life skills that will take him far beyond the classroom.

Here’s a little something that I know about you, teachers. You don’t just do this for the money. You do it because you truly care about the kids you are teaching. This is more than “just a job” for you. When you go to work every day, you are not simply earning a paycheque. You are shaping futures and opening up worlds of opportunity for my boys.

I will miss getting report cards for my boys this year. I will miss reading your carefully thought out commentaries on what their last term of the school year has been like. It will be strange to not see their grades for each subject.

But I understand why you’re not doing them. I understand that you are taking on a government that wants to choke the Ontario education system and make it more difficult for you to teach my kids effectively. There are people who are trying to claim that this is all about money and benefits, but I know that is so far from the truth that it might as well be on another planet.

I know that right now, you are not fighting for yourselves. You are fighting for my children. You are fighting for the future of our society.

For that, I thank you. Stay with the fight, teachers. And when you hear or read about parents criticizing you for taking a stand, know that there are parents out there who completely support you.


A grateful parent

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: woodleywonderworks. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Autism Advocacy: 8 Survival Tips For Parents


Yesterday, I shared my family’s recent success at securing a good Grade 7/8 program for my son, who has autism. The short version of the story is that my husband and I knew immediately that the program George was slated for would be very bad, not only for him but for his classmates. And so we went to bat for the kids. Over a period of seven months, we had meetings and phone calls with all kinds of people in the school board. A couple of weeks ago, George’s principal called to tell us that a Grade 7/8 program was being introduced in his current school. The news could not have been better. We would have been OK with a good program at any school, but George’s current school, which is fantastic in so many ways, was definitely the prize we were hoping for.

George was diagnosed with autism seven years ago. In that time, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to fighting in his corner. Here are some of the big ones.

1. Know what your child’s rights are. Don’t go into any meeting with your child’s teacher, principal or any school board representative without having a clear idea of what you are entitled to ask for on behalf of your child. A few pointers: in Ontario, you cannot be forced to homeschool, you cannot be forced to relocate and you cannot be forced to accept a shortened school day. Your child is entitled to an education in a public school in his or her neighbourhood, with the same number of instructional hours as any other student, regardless of what his or her abilities or disabilities are.

2. Have a clear idea of your desired outcome. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we simply want things to be different, or better. You have to ask yourself what that looks like. Perhaps you love the teacher but feel that extra assistance is needed. Maybe you simply want clearer IEP goals or better support during transitions. Or maybe you need a completely new direction for your child. Whatever it is, you have to know what you are aiming for. Ask yourself what the outcome would be if you got to be in charge of all the decisions.

3. But be prepared for compromise. This means knowing what you are prepared to settle for. In my case, first prize was a new program for George in his current school. There was always a chance that that wouldn’t happen, so we were prepared to settle for a good program at a different school. Aim for what you are really, really hoping for, but have some acceptable alternative scenarios kicking around in your mind as well.

4. And know what you will not accept. Sometimes, you may be offered a “solution” that just doesn’t work. You are not compelled to accept anything just because you’re told it’s the only option. What we were not prepared to accept was the program George was originally supposed to go to. We made that crystal clear early on in the discussions, and we did not budge. Negotiation is always key in discussions like this, but you have to be clear on the points that you will absolutely not move on.

5. Don’t go in looking for a fight. If you walk into the room assuming that the people you are meeting with are on the same side as you, the entire tone of the meeting can swing in your favour. The thing is, most of the time they will be on the same side as you. Advocating for your child does not always have to be a battle. Principals and teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they genuinely care (or they should) about the best interests of your child. On the other hand, they have to operate within rules and procedures that they cannot control. Show understanding towards them, and more often than not, they will show understanding towards you.

6. But don’t let anyone intimidate you. Look, from time to time you will encounter ass-hats. That’s just life. Smile serenely, know that if someone is being an ass-hat to you, they’re probably an ass-hat to everyone, and identify who your allies are. If there’s no ally in the room, politely tell them you need to reschedule the meeting, and go out and find an ally. You can bring anyone you like. You can even hire an advocacy consultant to accompany you. We were fortunate in that George’s principal was firmly on our side right from the start.

7. Remember that the special education community is small. No matter how frustrating the process is, no matter how badly you want to scream and swear, try your best to take the high road. People in the special education field tend to crop up again and again in different capacities. The person sitting opposite you today, whose head you badly want to rip off, could be in a position to help you three years from now. Don’t let anyone walk all over you, but keep your cool and stay polite.

8. Be persistent. If a meeting doesn’t yield acceptable results, call another one. If you agree on a course of action but something isn’t working, go back and see if something can be adjusted or tweaked. You are never obligated to just accept something for your child that is not working.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Woodleywonderworks. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


A Letter To Autism

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Dear Autism,

Although we were only formally introduced to one another six years ago, we have really known each other for longer than that. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you came into my life 9 years, 7 months and 4 days ago, on the day of my son’s birth.

You were there throughout his infancy, staying up with me during the late-night feedings and diaper changes, looking over my shoulder as I tried to figure out what was making him cry, and watching as I tentatively navigated those uncertain months of new motherhood.

You were there during his toddler years, and it was then that you really started to make your presence more obvious. You guided those tiny little hands of his as he repeatedly spun the wheels of toy cars without actually playing with them. You got him interested in that piece of string that he spent hours and hours examining. You choked his language skills and made sure he wouldn’t be interested in playing with other kids.

I didn’t know your name yet, but I knew you were there. I felt as if you wanted my beautiful boy all to yourself. You didn’t even want to share him with me. I hated you and felt threatened by you.

On the day the doctor told me your name, I cried. The doctor said that you would have control of my son forever, that he would never be able to achieve anything because of you. Hearing that broke my heart.

When I was done crying, I made a decision. I was not going to let you win. I was not going to let you ruin my son’s chances to have the best life possible. I knew that I would not be able to get rid of you, though. So we were going to have to learn to live with each other, you and I. Maybe we would even have to become friends.

And so, instead of trying to beat you down, I tried to find ways to work with you. You weren’t going to let my son learn in the ways that other kids learn, so I found people who would teach him in ways that you would like. You weren’t going to make it easy for him to talk, so I had to start at grass-roots level and show him ways to communicate in your presence, in ways that you would allow. You didn’t want him to enjoy playing with other kids his age, so me and my family became his playmates, teaching him how to play without letting you take the fun out of it.

As we have gone through all of this together, you and I, I have made the most astounding discovery. There are actually things about you that I like. You have accelerated the development of whatever part of my son’s brain is responsible for math. In blocking those quote-unquote “normal” ways of thinking, you have opened up his mind to thinking in ways that are unique and incredible. You have given him the ability to single-mindedly focus on a task until it is done just the way he wants it. Because of you, my son is determined and hard-working, and does not believe in giving up.

Best of all, you have touched my beautiful child with his own special brand of magic. He has an innocence and pureness of spirit that makes him light up the space around him. Because you make him think in such a unique way, he has a quirky sense of humour that brightens up the lives of those who are near him. He has a fierce love for me, for his dad, and for his little brother.

You have given me a special gift as well. You have taught me how to appreciate the little things. Every word, every sentence, every little baby-step of progress is a cause for celebration. I have learned how to be happy in the most adverse circumstances.

I cannot go far enough to say that I like you, Autism. But without a doubt, there are things that I respect about you, and while you have made my life so hard and heartbreaking in many ways, you have enriched it in other ways.

I have come to terms with the fact that you will always be there, and I think by now you know that I’m not going anywhere, and I am not letting you get the better of my son. I like to think that for the most part, we can peacefully coexist. There are undoubtedly days when you win, and there always will be.

But you will never stop my son, because he is unstoppable, and because he has a family who will fight for him tooth and nail, every step of the way.

Yours truly,

George’s Warrior Mom

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)