For many in the special needs community, that phrase conjures images of parents breathing fire while toting armloads of files and folders into an IEP meeting or annual review.
Not a pretty picture.
And, if the truth be told from my vantage point as a former teacher, it’s not the most effective way to advocate at school either. During my 25 years in public education, the parents who did the most good for their children were those who took President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to heart.
They spoke softly and carried a big stick.
For special education parent advocates who are Christians, the big stick part involves research and understanding of special education law. (WrightsLaw is a great place to begin that research.) For those same believing advocates, the speaking softly component involves cultivating fruitful relationships with school personnel. Here are ten ways I saw parents advocate at school positively and fruitfully on behalf of their kids.
- Pray for those involved in your child’s life at school. Your prayers make a huge difference in the lives if educators. For ideas about how and why to pray, check out the post Mid-September Is a Good Time to Pray.
- Volunteer. Sign up to be a room parent or to supervise class parties for younger kids or as a chaperone for older ones. Or volunteer to use a special skill to make life easier for your child’s teachers. The best volunteer I ever had was a mom who was a court reporter. She came once a week to type and format my students’ stories into the computer. The kids were thrilled to have professional looking writing samples, and I was thrilled to have time to devote to other teaching tasks.
- Ask what’s needed. If you don’t have time to donate, ask the teacher if there are supplies you can donate. Teachers with limited budgets often buy these items from their own pockets.
- Bring healthy food. As in for the teachers’ lounge. Many teachers spend much of the lunch hour in their rooms working. When they take a quick break, they really appreciate real food snacks.
- Remember your child is not the only one. As parents we often have tunnel vision. While we are called to advocate on behalf of our children, we are not called to advocate on behalf of our children to the exclusion of other kids. So our advocacy should seek solutions that are fair and equitable to all.
- Remember that teachers are humans. They will make mistakes. (I’m talking about minor issues, not flagrant malpractice here.) We need to approach teachers about our concerns with humility rather than judgement. We need to offer support and solutions with grace.
- Speak the truth in love. Though we must remember that teachers are human, we shouldn’t gloss over what happened. We must tell the truth about how the situation affected our child and others. But we must speak calmly, lovingly, and persistently as the Holy Spirit speaks to us when He convicts us.
- Notice the little things. We’re good at noticing big things, like when a teacher wins an award or a coach takes a team to the finals. But in the lives of our children, the little things matter. The smile on a teacher’s face when students enter her room. The principal who knows the names of every child in the building. The PE teacher who greets kids with a high five or fist bump. The para-professional who makes minor accommodations without fanfare. When you see those things, talk them up.
- Say thank you. Though I left teaching in 2003 I still have a file containing every thank you note and positive letter sent by the parents of my students. They are treasures to me. Imagine what treasures your notes will be to your children’s teachers in the present.
- Tell the boss. Most administrators only receive negative feedback from parents about teachers. Can you imagine what would happen to the atmosphere at school if we also called administrators with feedback about the positive things teachers do for our kids? As Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”
When we advocate at school, we are called to make a difference in the lives of our children. By advocating in a positive, Christ-like manner, we can make a difference not only in our kids’ lives, but also in the lives of every child and educator at the school. The next time you’re tempted to whip out your big stick, take a moment to pray. Ask God to show you if there’s a better way to advocate.