When your son’s teacher says, “I think you’d better book two consecutive parent’s evening slots instead of one…”, the signs are not good. I wanted to say, “No, we’re fine with fifteen minutes, thanks” but of course, she’s right. Half an hour is barely going to scratch the surface, let alone half that time. The usual quick run through of progress made, areas for improvement and levels achieved might suit most children, but normal rules rarely apply where B is concerned. And so it was that we headed off to his parent teacher consultation, heavy of heart and bracing ourselves for who knows what.
We have a history of uncomfortable parent’s evenings. I still shudder at the thought of the evening when my oldest son’s teacher (incorrectly) told me she thought he was on the spectrum. I remember the anti-climax of the year before when we were told he was making decent enough progress but perhaps wasn’t the child prodigy that we hoped and thought he was (he’s gone on to prove we were more right than we thought). And then there’s the numerous other meetings we’ve had with school- all well documented on the pages of this blog, and all a difficult experience in one way or another.
I’m very used to, and quite comfortable with, sitting on the other side of the table at parents’ evenings. The vast majority of meetings are a positive and worthwhile experience. You get the occasional tricky customer or pain in the arse who can’t see things for what they are, but generally the sense that we’re all on the same side and want the best for the child sets the tone of the chat. Where it becomes difficult is when a child is either really struggling or has (usually as a result of struggling) poor behaviour. That’s when, as teachers, we reach for the euphemisms. “I don’t think it’s his strongest subject”, “He enjoys more active learning”, or “he’s quite a character” are usually code for what in the staff room would be “nightmare”, “bonkers” or “little shit”. I’d like to think that as a teacher I am honest and realistic when talking to parents. Nonetheless, I think we all play the same game of sugaring the pill.
As a result, my ears are quite attuned to ‘teacher speak’ at parent’s evening. I’ve heard all the coded phrases because I’ve used them myself. I know when I’m not hearing straight talking and I know how to read between the lines. When my oldest son’s teacher said he gets distracted, I knew that meant he was distracting. I want to say to teacher’s, “It’s okay. No need for the BS. You can give it to me straight”.
Funnily enough, I didn’t quite feel like that this time. If anything, I wanted to say, “Be gentle with us”. As rhino-thick as my skin is, I felt decidedly anxious ahead of this meeting, and I know my wife did too. It’s funny how a brief event or meeting can become the pivotal, all-consuming focal point of your week. The long, slow build up to Thursday evening gave us ample time to become wound up about chatting to B’s teacher. And so we did what we always do ahead of stressful meetings like this: we made a list.
I have included here the questions we wrote in the hope/illusion that we might some day be of use/interest to someone:
- How well is he accessing the curriculum?
- What are his main difficulties and issues?
- What issues should we raise with occupational therapy?
- How is his attention and concentration?
- How is he (and the school) coping with toileting?
- How does he respond to the rest of the class?
- How do the rest of the class respond to him?
- To what extent will he be included in Sports Day and other forthcoming school events?
- What are his National Curriculum levels?
- How does school foresee him coping with Year One?
- How is his SALT intervention going?
- How is he getting on with his T.A?
- How much ‘time out’ and exclusion from the class is happening?
As always happens, we pretty much forgot about the list of questions once we were there. B’s teacher had a list of things she wanted to share and these took up the majority of the meeting. Most, but not all of the questions were addressed anyway and we covered plenty in our appointment (which, at 40 minutes, overran).
As a teacher, I always approach meetings with an emphasis on the positive elements of the child’s progress. It’s too easy to get bogged down with what a child can’t do at the expense of celebrating their achievements. That is not to say that areas for improvement are shied away from, but they are a part of the meeting rather than the over-riding tone. And so it was with B’s teacher. She was very happy to report all sorts of progress and development. Problems had been overcome, skills improved and success enjoyed. She was able to share examples of positive progress and improvements. Despite difficulties and a reluctance to go in some mornings, she felt he was settled, happy and doing well. She told us things that, as parents, we wanted to hear. She went as far as to say, “I wish you could be a fly on the wall to see how well he’s doing.” Undoubtably, they are pleased with how thing’s are developing and feel we should be pleased too. We nodded and smiled our way through the meeting, acknowledging his success and gratefully receiving such positive feedback. We thanked the school for their hard work and left what had, overall, been a much better experience than we had expected.
With a little distance, and time to reflect, our feelings about the meeting are that it was very positive. But that is not how we felt. B’s teacher could never know how the things she told us would make us feel. Why wouldn’t we feel delighted and encouraged by such positive comments? The truth is that the meeting reminded us, in no uncertain terms, that our son is different.
The harsh reality is that we are autism parents. Our son might be doing well, but it is on very different terms from his peers. The meeting shone a spotlight on my son’s differences, highlighting just how far removed he is from the norm. We did not talk about National Curriculum levels, as if such things are irrelevant or out of reach for my son. We were told things like, “he almost knows the other children’s’ names” and “last week, he played with someone”. We were told, “the class is very accepting of difference” and “he joins in most activities”, like these things are supposed to fill us with joy.
Well they don’t. They just rub our faces in the fact that our son, whilst mainstream, sticks out like a sore thumb. Even in this most basic of years, when play is everything and the demands so much more simple, he needs every minute of those 32.5 hours support to cope. Foolishly, we took a sneaky look at his class mates’ books while we were waiting. I wish we hadn’t. We also saw a photograph of the class, smiling for the camera. There he is, right on the end, looking in a completely different direction. This tells you everything you need to know.
It was not meant to be like this. My children were supposed to be the ones who sailed through school, with the advantage of a supportive and educated family ensuring that they would always do well. They were at least supposed to be achieving typical levels for their age. I wish we were even talking about levels. I gave my wife the usual positive bullshit (“stay strong”, “be tough”, “it will get easier”) while all the time I’m dying inside. I found myself thinking the thoughts that, until now, I have always managed to avoid: it’s not fucking fair.
I’ll stop there. This is not a healthy way to think and I’m writing under the cloud of this week’s meeting, which will soon enough lift. It has to; on Thursday we are back in school for B’s six month review.