Being Your Child’s Advocate

I am a Mama Bear. When it comes to our children my husband would say I am a total mama bear watching out for her cubs. I would have to agree 100%.  We were married 9 years before we were blessed with them and I will not apologize to those out there that crossed onto my bad side, fangs bared.

I am normally easy-going by nature. Not passive, but not generally a “B”. I have a very positive outlook and a can-do attitude. I will not roll-over and play dead when my kids are involved.  As they got older we definitely switched to a more counselor role and let them handle some situations until they asked or we felt they needed assistance.

YOU are your child’s advocate. Who else do you expect to do it? I’d like to talk specifically about our sons education. To give you a background, we have twin boys who are now in college and 21.  We have lived in Oklahoma, Iowa and Washington State for their education. They have always been in the public school system. While many people over the years had suggested that we should think about home schooling them, I knew that even though I hold a college degree in Biology I was not the best person to educate our boys daily on my own. Scholastically and temperament-wise, I knew their best bet was not me.

And so they entered the public school system. No, it is not perfect. Yes, we had imperfect teachers. Yes, we had amazing teachers.  We also chose to encourage our sons to get the most out of their education and expected the school system to do their best.

How do you do that?  You start at the beginning and be there 100%. You volunteer, you chaperone. When there is a problem, you discuss it with your child’s teacher, calmly and professionally and if the result isn’t what you are looking for, you go up the chain of command. You can’t be afraid to step on a few toes along the way, your child only has you to look out for their best interest. Notice the bold lettering in that previous sentence? Their best interest. Not the schools, not the teachers, not the state and not yours, your child’s best interest.

We learned this lesson many times over their 12 years. I’ll let you know what we did to make changes.  How you choose to approach every situation depends on the schools and the staff you are dealing with.  You have to also be honest in your dealings.  Understand and appreciate your child for who they are, but don’t be blind to their faults as well.  As much as we wish it were so, we and our children are not perfect and neither are the teachers and administrators.  We shouldn’t expect perfection.

First step, figure out how your child learns. How do they take in information and what do they need to do to get it to stick? There many ways to figure this out. Websites. Teachers. Working with your child and observing. Knowing this will help your child immensely. We have twins that learn differently. No surprise as they are fraternal twins. Figure out how each child learns and don’t assume that Suzy will learn the same way as their older sibling Johnny.

How do our boys learn?

Josh is an input learner. No matter how he gets that input. Reading, watching a video, listening to a teacher. Once he sees it or hears it he remembers. The photo below is of Josh at the third grade spelling bee.  This so captures how we see him.  He’s just been given the word. He repeats the word back and then glances up and slowly spells the word. What you see in the photo is Josh looking internally to “see” the word. He is flipping through his files and finding it. Having a child learn like this may seem easy for you, but there are many challenges they will face in their life.

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Zach is a written learner. This means he learns things by writing them down. Writing the spelling list once or twice. Doing the math problem. Writing out his outline before his paper.

Once we knew how they learned, we knew how to help them with homework and how to talk with their teachers.

Our first time butting heads with the PSS, was in Oklahoma. It wasn’t a teacher, it was the administrator of the reading/gifted program.  Their teacher was their advocate and taught me what I needed to watch out for, how to discuss issues with administrators and how to be the best advocate for my child. I will forever hold a special place in my heart for Tracy.  She looked at our son Josh in her kindergarten class and “got him”. She told us she really disliked the moniker “gifted” being used. We learned that few children are truly gifted, accelerated in all subjects/areas of study. Most are accelerated in one or two and get labeled as “gifted” and unrealistic expectations by parents. We tried not to use that label. We encouraged our sons to be who they were meant to be and to see that every child has strengths and weaknesses. They are unique.  Embrace that and encourage it!

In Oklahoma, the school did not have the reading programs (STAR in this case) in the kindergarten classes. Kindergarten was where they were supposed to learn to read so kids weren’t tested. Until Josh and Zach. Tracy knew how well Josh could read. She asked administrators to test him. They refused. She asked them to provide the computer and STAR program in her room so she could do it. They refused. Tracy went to her principal with Josh’s written out birthday wish list, “Electric train, not wooden. Extra track. Batteries. Sled.” She informed them that he wrote it exactly as written without asking for help.  They changed their minds. They tested both boys and two other children in the kindergarten rooms as suggested by their teachers.  Those kids started on the reading program and thrived.

Our second time butting heads with the PSS was in Iowa. Our sons were there for first and second grade.  Several parents that I met through volunteering got to talking over coffee. All of us were from bigger cities. All college educated. We all felt that our kids weren’t being challenged. We spoke, as a group, to the principal. When he raised his hands in the air and said, “there’s nothing I can do,” we went to his boss. His boss at least was honest, “we are a small town in Iowa with little funding to help those at the higher end. We need all our resources for those at the other end of the learning curve.” I will say, we were disappointed and a bit ticked off that our children had to sit and help others rather than learn themselves. I will say on a positive note, that they did fund and require all staff attend a “how to incorporate gifted kids in your classroom” seminar. It was a start right? 

Teacher advocate #2.   The next week one of the teaching staff approached me, letting me know that she had heard of our meetings and was thankful that we had tried to address the situation. Her children had been accelerated and gone through the system in our small town. She was honest and said that they probably wouldn’t get very many challenges. She also suggested we start teaching them things they won’t get so early in school. Art, music or a foreign language. She suggested we introduce these subjects at home for the extra challenge. We chose music and art.  

Butting heads #3. Remember that child that read early? Well, here was challenge #1. His fine motor skills didn’t match the speed of his brain. What did this mean?  Think timed math tests. 30 math problems in 60 seconds.

His teacher approached us and let us know that Josh “just wasn’t good at math”. I asked,  why would she say that?  I was told that he couldn’t progress to the next math level until he could get the timed test completed. I asked what he was stuck on and how much time he was given. I also asked for several copies of the test.

I tested him myself at home. True enough, he didn’t complete all 30 equations in 60 seconds. I knew he knew the answers. So, what was taking so long? It was the time he took for him to write the answer. I had him, read the equation to himself and say the answer. Test completed. I had him do it all orally, say equation then say the answer. Test completed as well as two additional lines. I went to the teacher and explained what I had done. She agreed to test him orally and he quickly surpassed the other students. 

Don’t be afraid to find different ways to approach homework or testing for your child. Take the time to figure it out and then share what you know with your child’s teacher or with administrators. Our son didn’t need to always be tested orally. Eventually his fine motor skills caught up. 

Recognize that teachers often do not have the time to figure out your individual child’s uniqueness when it comes to how best to teach or test them. They have a large number of kids with a wide range of learning levels in their classrooms. That is where you come in. When there is an issue, work with them. If you can, volunteer. Josh was able to be tested orally because of paraeducators and volunteers. Be that volunteer. If you can’t volunteer in the classroom, volunteer for events at the school. 

Know your child. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

We had many other advocates within the system and also times we had to speak up for our children. Needless to say our sons teachers, principals and superintendents all knew who I was by name and face. I’d like to think our sons didn’t get grief because of that, but I know they did.

I was vocal and teachers learned that quickly. The next one that tried to tell me my son wasn’t good at math.  The one that made my shy child cry in class in front of his peers. The one that held back entering homework that was completed and graded until after grades were submitted so that our sons grade was not reflective of his work.  This was done as revenge towards our son for speaking up twice in class when he ventured into an inappropriate discussion with the class. Mama Bear time! 

We tried to solve every situation directly with the teacher in person.  If we couldn’t get in to see them we sent an email.  If we didn’t hear back or receive a resolution, we sent an email and copied the principal.  We also did not back down.  We were always respectful and professional.  

I was also the teachers greatest advocates when they were amazing.  There were many examples of fantastic teachers over the years that genuinely love what they do.  I made sure other parents knew who I thought were stellar teachers and why.  I copied their principals on all my thank you’s and atta-boys.  I gave them kudos for giving our sons the base to build those towers of education on.

Here are a few that I want to recognize:  Tracy at Angie Debo Elementary School in Edmond, Oklahoma. who gave me the courage and knowledge on how to advocate for our sons.  She is no longer there, but she rocked!

The Reading Room teacher at West Cedar Elementary in Waverly, Iowa who encouraged us to teach them more.  She retired shortly after we left.

Kristin Olson Sutton at Pioneer Elementary in Arlington, Washington. Who is simply amazing.  She is what all teachers should be like.  She taught our son how to take a timed test and how to write.  She understood our quiet shy son and didn’t have him doing a zillion crafts like Josh’s teacher, but actual learning.

Kathy Shoemaker, who taught the kids “Rainbow Writing”. If you don’t know what that is, look it up.  It is a great way to teach kids to write well.

Carrie Sweem and Brooke Ford at Pioneer Elementary, who “got” our sons and stood strong as their advocates.  They will forever have my undying love for understanding my shy quiet child and being ok with him writing, Fred/Sam/Bill instead of Zach at the top of his papers and calling him his “name of the week”.  For letting Josh organize things in their room because his work was done.

Melissa Molthan & Mr. Carpenter at Haller Middle School for making sure that our 6th grade sons were challenged by arranging for them to visit the 8th grade science class during shark autopsies that were being discontinued the next year.

Roel Ubungen who let those 6th graders come into his class and then proceeded to start the robotics program at Haller Middle School.

Deanna Vaughan and Frank Stallons at Arlington High School for being engaging teachers who taught chemistry and math and made it interesting for their students.  I do not wonder at all that our sons both love these subjects because of you both.

Lastly, John Grabowski at Arlington High School.  There are simply no words I can say to thank him for the gift he gave our sons, especially our son Zach. Because of you, he thrives.  Your support, encouragement, drive and dedication in the face of so many obstacles in the PSS when it comes to music and the arts, allowed this mother to watch her son take center stage at the performing arts center and play Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” on his bari sax.  While still on the shy quiet side, he has an amazing friend group at Johns Hopkins. He continues to learn new instruments that help him deal with the stress of school.  You gave him the greatest gift.  Love for himself, as he is and confidence that he can do anything.  Bless you John!

Advocate Advocate Advocate

In the end do not let anyone label your child. Do not let them say they can’t do something. Be your child’s best advocate.  Because when you advocate for your child, you advocate for other children who may not have a voice to speak up in their place.  This applies to not just their education, but to any aspect of their lives.

Give kudos to the teachers that make a difference in the life of your child.  Do it in person, via emails, by volunteering and with small gifts if you can.

Be your child’s advocate!

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Do you have a question you want to ask me?  Let me know!

I am dedicating this blog to the mom who tirelessly advocated for her three kids.  She may not know it, but I am so proud to be her friend.  I watched as she battled schools, administrators, doctors and more for her kids.  Kathy K. you are amazing!

 

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