Author: Karen Copeland
Yesterday I had the honour of speaking to two classes of fourth year education students at Trinity Western University. Those of you who know me well, will understand how excited I was to be given this opportunity. You see, I am very passionate about sharing the family experience with students who will be heading out into professional practice in the near future. It is critical for these students to hear from parents and youth with lived experience, to understand the complexities of the journeys they are on with their children. To not only understand the barriers that families face, but also the gifts of learning that come as a result. These are not experiences that can be learned in a textbook. To truly understand what it is like, you must hear from the people who are living it.
The challenge is we often bring stories that are uncomfortable to hear. While I try very hard not to get into detailed specifics of the challenges we face, I do recognize and allude to these, for to “hide” them might mean these challenges never exist. And the cold, hard reality is these challenges do exist. For many families in our communities. It is a balancing act, recognizing these challenges without coming across as whiny, or worse yet having an axe to grind. Trying to focus on the learning that has happened as a result, how these experiences have shaped the person I have become, how they have driven me to speak out passionately in the hopes that the message will be heard by someone who is ready to hear it.
One of the things I key in on right at the start of my presentations is the importance of curiousity.
And then I give everyone a chance to practice being curious by showing a map of all the services and supports we have been involved with over the years. Participants are given the opportunity to reflect quietly on the map and then encouraged to ask me questions. It is a powerful exercise, and it is always interesting to see who notices what on the map and what is believed to be important. I place a great amount of trust in the people in the room, with whom I am sharing our story. I trust they will honour our story by not leaving the session and then sharing specifics of our story, but I also trust they will have the courage to reflect on their own beliefs and practices when it comes to working alongside families.
Much of what we spoke about yesterday was the importance of families and educators coming alongside one another, trusting one another to collaborate to develop strategies and programs to best support the child. I truly believe that the best strategies that are put into place are the ones that have been created in partnership. We can base our strategies solely on textbook knowledge, however the parent(s)/youth may have information on how to tweak that strategy in order to get a more successful result. If everyone buys in to the process, feels valued in the process, chances are good things are going to happen. I spoke about how, during a difficult situation, the teacher recognized he would have to approach things differently. He said to us “I think I have to approach things differently. I have some ideas, but I haven’t thought them through too clearly yet. Can I think about this more over the weekend, and we can meet early next week to see what you think of them, and maybe you can give me some ideas that you might have?” You can imagine this changed the tone of the conversation. More importantly, it changed the tone of the relationship, and resulted in us seeing some really positive things happen for our child.
We talked about the fact that parents are sending the best children they have to school. They are sending their children to school because they have a desire for their child to learn, to grow, to experience. We are not sending our child to school to be a problem. In fact, we desperately hope for our child to succeed, even if it takes a long time with much commitment. Similarly, our children do not go to school not wanting to be the best they can be. They too, have a desire to learn, to be accepted, to be a part of something bigger. It’s just that for some of our kids, this is much, much harder than others. We need to believe in our teachers, that they are in the classroom because they love learning, because they love experiencing the wonder and growth of their students. We need to believe this in our schools. We need to believe this in our families.
We spoke about the need for families and educators to come together and learn from and with each other. We talked about the barriers that exist to having this happen. Most often, this is a result of fear. Educators may worry they are opening themselves up to criticism, and goodness knows they have been demoralized enough over the past several months. Parents/caregivers may worry they are opening themselves up to further judgement, as if they do not get enough from other parents, the broader community and sometimes even their own family.
I wonder. Our past experiences shape our future responses, unless we work really hard to learn why we are feeling the way we are, and what steps we can take to change this. When we allow our negative experiences to influence our future responses, are we creating our own narrative to fill in the blanks? “I’m not sure what to expect out of this conversation, but I think it’s going to be uncomfortable, and remember that really uncomfortable conversation I had where I really wanted and needed to throw up and had a migraine for days after? Nah. I think I might skip this one.”
A quick aside: Ted Leavitt from Connectivity Counselling explores why it is challenging to shift away from this type of thinking in his video: Reset Your Thinking (and other useless advice)
I spoke to the students about not being scared of that uncomfortable feeling. Embracing it. Because change doesn’t happen when we are comfortable. Change takes a lot of work, patience and curiousity. Making a common goal, keeping it as the focus, working through the challenges towards something bigger, something better. We derail when we lose focus, when our emotions become the driver of the conversation, making detours down paths that probably never should be traveled upon. Fighting hard within ourselves when this happens, trusting in ourselves, persevering.
Both sessions went extremely well, with some really great feedback from the students and instructor. I really appreciated the opportunity to share and hopefully inspire!
When I arrived home, I read a tweet from Shawn Davids, an Administrator in the Langley School District, about his latest blog post: Trust: It’s the Right Place to Start. I sincerely appreciated the time he took to write about the importance of trusting the parents who come into our schools, for many of the same reasons I just listed above. I especially appreciated this point:
“When we first interact with a parent, child or educator, we assume that they are starting at “point zero” on the trust scale. Like all of the things they have done leading up to the moment of crossing our path has not somehow earned them our trust right from the get go.”
Shawn writes so beautifully about the importance of believing in parents, in educators, ourselves.
I pondered though. I thought for a long time. I wondered, how many parents are coming to school with zero trust? How do we reach out to those who have been hurt in a very real way by a system? I wonder if it starts with gentle curiousity. By asking about and acknowledging their experience, by not making promises like “we do it differently here”; instead offering to be available to connect in if a challenge or concern should arise. And then, ensuring you are available when they do finally reach out. Offering encouraging words, recognizing and calling attention to specific strengths. Demonstrating your belief in their child or youth. I am curious to hear from educators on this one.
To wrap up, it is my hope and desire that we can make these inclusive and collaborative learning communities happen. I have so many ideas percolating in my head about different ways to make this happen – do I take a chance and try to create a #parentcamp (based on #edcamp)? or if I want it to be truly inclusive, do I create a #communitycamp? I do know I will need many champions by my side if I choose to take this on! But so important for us all to come together, to begin learning with and from each other. Building a foundation of trust in a very big way. Healing some of the hurt and creating new pathways for how we think about one another and discovering a stronger way forward together. I hope you will join me on that journey.