Eureka and Middle School Math · Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

A Lesson in Empathy

When I first began teaching at Parker Charter (Devens, MA), I encountered a phenomenon that was new to me: parents would register their student at the school, but not tell us that the student had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). We’d spend a few months with the kids, becoming increasingly concerned about performance and achievement, adding more supports….until, finally, during a phone call or meeting, the parent would say “oh, yes, well, he used to be on an IEP, but we took him off to see how things would go here, to give him a fresh start.”

This used to make me crazy. From where I was in my life at that time, I saw this a the parents denying the student an opportunity to access support. And I never understood why a parent would deny a child an opportunity to receive support, especially support that clearly, at least at some point in the life of the child, has been deemed necessary. It also seemed to me that the student still had need of some kind of support, since we were reaching out to the parent because the student was, once again, not doing well.

I’m changing my tune these days. I recently participated in a five-day, online training to become a coach for Critical Friends Groups through NSRF, National School Reform Faculty. There’s some serious irony in all of this because the last time that I used the protocols from the NSRF was when I was teaching at Parker and, at the time, I did not enjoy the protocols at all! With that said, I have come to appreciate the ways in which the protocols provide structure and space for difficult conversations. I think these will become powerful tools to support the work at my current school, Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School (GCVS) as we continue to grow amid the new challenges each year brings.

When I signed up for this online course, my migraines were just migraines and not a brain tumor. I’m sure that I could have chosen to not take the course and I could have gotten a refund, especially under those circumstances. But I didn’t want to. Perhaps it’s foolish, but what got me through the first few weeks of radiation with all of its indignities and dehumanization was the fact that I daily spent time with students in summer school and then spent the afternoons exploring the protocols and the Critical Friends work, challenging though it was.

The way the training was set up, the first section of it was five days from noon to three (ET) with a break of one week and then returning for three days at 3 1/2 hours each starting July 7th. I found myself struggling, starting from the very first day. The suggestion had been that we didn’t need to print anything as long as we had everything downloaded, but I couldn’t keep up with opening files and paying attention and figuring out what was coming next. As the week went on, and as we participated in more and more formal protocols, my ability to participate became more and more strained. In particular, I found myself struggling when we were asked to do more than one task simultaneously. If a protocol asked asked to write something, then share it, while also making sure that what we shared didn’t duplicate what someone else had already said, all of which was happening through a screen, and then later we were supposed to type into the chat what we had shared which couldn’t repeat as previously noted…that’s when I really started to find myself on shaky ground.

Of course, it didn’t help that my district had paid for me to attend the training and that part of the goal of attending was that I would become one of the two certified coaches who will be working with teachers and other staff members throughout the coming year to implement these protocols. No pressure, no pressure at all! And my brain proceeded to crack under this pressure. By the end of our time on Friday afternoon, I found myself asking to meet with the facilitator and I was in tears explaining to him that I had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer and was struggling to keep up and was drowning in panic about how I would return for three more sessions, each longer than the ones we had done this week, with the expectation that we would be fully engaged in leading and participating in the protocols.

What does this have to do with my time at Parker Charter? Well, I felt like one of those parents, finally admitting to a hidden secret IEP. As I said to the facilitator through my tears, I had just wanted to be normal, my normal, for a little bit longer. This is when I experienced some retroactive empathy. I imagine that those parents had wanted to keep the IEPs secret just wanted a few more weeks or a few months of normal for their students. I’m not sure that I gained anything from keeping my radiation and the physical impacts of it a secret for five days, but I held onto that really hard until I just gave up. Giving up and admitting the presence of this tumor and the treatment felt like such a failure. Although the facilitator was wonderful, and I had expected nothing less of him, it was very difficult for me to be engaged in a conversation about lowering expectations or finding work-arounds or changing the rules for me, like not asking me to participate with a variety of participants in the course because it would be easier if I worked with the same people each of the three days remaining.

So I apologize, retrospectively, to all of the parents with whom I was angry years ago when they hid their children’s IEPs from me at the start of the school year. I ask their forgiveness for my lack of empathy and my inability to take perspective at that time. Now that I face a similar situation, now that I am faced with having to accept that my ability is limited in ways I’ve never experienced in my life, I understand how hard it is to give up any iota of control or input. I, too, wanted to hang onto the last threads of normal, to be judged on my performance and not on my weaknesses, to be an equal participant at the table and not the one with cancer. For the parents, maybe this was an opportunity to have their child seen as the person that the parents see, and not a child with a diagnosis or a label.

I don’t have a solution, as the solution for me came in the form of accepting that I needed to start taking steroids again to get some relief for my brain. And for all that I have struggled to face the reality that radiation does carry the possibility of permanent brain damage, it’s not something that I look at every day, so there are moments when I’m able to walk away from having to face the reality of the situation I find myself in, at least for the moment. I imagine that it’s not necessarily an option for all parents to walk away for any amount of time, the way that I sometimes have pieces of time when I can pretend that I have my life back. And so, perhaps there’s learning for me in both applying empathy both retroactively and also looking for opportunities to apply it as I return to school in September.

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