Our World of Small Miracles

We have the honor of raising three children who each have incredible gifts. I have loved watching them grow and learning from them each day as they become the people they are meant to be. Parenting is not an easy job by any means. It is full of self-doubt and worry, but it is also full of unforgettable moments when you realize you may be doing something right. I love to get those reminders from my social media of memories I posted like, “I just found myself saying, ‘Do not put that pineapple in the microwave.’ Ahh, the joys of parenting boys.” It is so easy to forget those funny moments and worry more than celebrate. That is especially true for parents raising children who see the world differently and that the world does not always understand.  

I love this quote from What I Should Have Said by Rob Snow. “We get to watch our children overcome or work through obstacles, appreciate things in life we’ve never considered, and stay more determined than any group ever encountered. We know things are not always positive and we each deal with various medical, physical, and emotional issues. We deal with being treated differently, sometimes terribly. But at the end of the day, we have experienced hope, admiration, and compassion like few have. We have learned amazing things that will stay completely unknown to most of this world, and we have discovered parts of ourselves that we never knew existed.” That describes our world very well on most days as we do our best to raise our twelve-year-old twins, both of whom have special needs.  

They have taught us how to pay attention to the little moments we used to take for granted. On our tough days, all it takes is to read a previous IEP to remember how far they have come. This is especially true of our Nick, who at four was non-verbal and about to be fitted for a helmet as he would often smash his head on things in a dangerous way during lengthy meltdowns. He could talk, but he wouldn’t unless he was pushed to do so. This was especially heartbreaking as he was talking at two and then stopped. Not unusual for children with Autism, but watching your child slip away was incredibly hard. We needed to try and do something, so we started to pursue alternative therapies that included yoga, tutoring, photo light stimulation, pressure point stimulation while he walked across a balance beam blindfolded, a home exercise program, limiting his access to technology, using a Chi Machine to help him sleep, and a nutritional analysis that told us what he should and should not eat based on a blood and urine sample. It took us a long time to figure out what to do as this was expensive and meant we had to drive him forty-five minutes away three days a week for sessions. It turned our lives upside down. Some of the shifts in his diet and the exercise program reopened his communication center and allowed us to see glimpses of our funny, loving little Nick again. It felt like a miracle and made all the stress of trying to get the therapy set up well worth it.

Even with all the progress he has made, he still struggles significantly with communication. He isn’t always able to connect to others even when they are trying their best to connect with him. That is hard for us as we always feel the need to explain him to everyone, although we have no idea why he connects with some people and not others. It is also hard for people trying to support him to feel like they can’t help. We are fortunate to have many family members and friends who try hard and try often to find ways to connect with him no matter how long it takes. 

We measure success in a series of small miracles that would seem like no big deal to most people. The first time he got dressed on his own was a pretty amazing day as we worked on it for months and months. The first time he spoke to someone else without prompting was a pretty amazing day as we work on that one ALL the time. When he makes subtle observations about the world like a new door in the horse barn where he goes for occupational therapy that no one else noticed, it becomes a pretty amazing day. The first time he could take the dog around the block on his own without us following to be sure he didn’t get lost was a pretty amazing day.   

The time he wanted to read the Harry Potter books because “Wouldn’t it be better if I could read like Henry (his twin brother who has always been a strong reader)?” was one of those heartbreaking and yet unforgettable days. He could articulate what he wanted. He stretched for something that felt out of reach and was willing to work for it. For months, we listened to the audiobooks, followed along in the text, and watched YouTube videos to make sense of the parts that just didn’t make sense to him. The moment we got to the end was a fantastic day. We celebrated with a surprise trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, so we could watch both boys as they watched it all come to life.  

This time of not knowing what is going to come next has been incredibly challenging. The boys transitioned to a new grade level this year with all new people, which would be hard for them on a typical day much less during a pandemic. We started all virtual and have chosen to continue with it even when the building is open again because we can’t get it wrong when it comes to school. They need predictability in their schedules and routines, which is not possible with days on, days off, and the chance of quarantine. We are fortunate that my husband could switch to working second shift to be with our boys during the day. It’s been hard on us, but turning our lives upside down to do what is best for our kids is not new- much like many other parents. We are also blessed to have a wonderful team of educators for both boys who are finding ways to help them grow even when they have never met in person and are struggling themselves to figure this all out.

Nick has regressed a lot in the last few months in his interest and capacity to interact with others. His processing time when trying to make conversation is more delayed than ever. These are the things that keep me up at night. The idea of living through another time where he is closed up in his shell is terrifying. The minute we get a glimpse of that, we panic. Then, as usual, he reminds us to pay attention to the little things. His math skills have suddenly grown from still trying to identify the numbers 1-10 to asking questions about division and fractions. We had to pay attention to small questions he has been asking about numbers and how they work to know he was ready for new concepts and then patiently wait as he tries to explain his thinking to us. 

He’s had a few moments lately that have helped me breathe easier and know that he will make it through this crazy time of isolation and fear just fine. When my mom passed away two years ago, we inherited her puggle. She was my mom’s faithful companion, best friend, and a very ugly dog. We had also gotten Nick a puppy that we were hoping to train as a companion animal just before bringing Bella to live with us. He has called the puppy the “Demon Dog” since the day we brought him home but fell head over heels in love with the twelve-year-old, overweight puggle with tumors all over her body who the vet told us had only a few months to live. This was going to be a problem.  

He would tell her every day that she was his best friend and how much he loved her. We did our best to love the heck out of her and made it almost two years before she passed a few weeks ago. We had been preparing him for some time that this may happen, but he would hear none of it. The day she passed, he went totally into his shell and just sat in his room for a really long time alone, repeating over and over again, “I’m fine. I’m fine.” It was crushing. 

The next day, all on his own, he took the puppy (who is now two and a great dog) to his room and spent about an hour trying to train him to be a “good dog”. He was not convinced at the end of their first session. However, we were hopeful that he seemed to be understanding the loss and was trying to find a way to move forward. Then, he seemed to disconnect all over again. He didn’t want to talk about it and immediately went quiet when anyone else brought it up.   

A couple of days ago we found her collar under his pillow. When I asked him about it, he said. “Mom, I found it in the drawer. I was worried someone would throw it away, so I put it under my pillow. She was the best dog ever, and now I can feel close to her every day.” Tears are now streaming down my face. I miss that dog every moment of every day as she was such a light for him, but she was also a daily reminder of my mom. Her loss was challenging in many ways, but the fact that he could articulate how he felt about it and how he would keep her close was oddly an incredible day. His connections are always on our minds. This one came in such a powerful and unexpected way through a dog that came into our lives out of grief and tragedy.

We never know when we will find one of these bright spots, and if we aren’t careful to watch for them we’d miss them. We recently saw our extended family. We had the regular kind of nerve-wracking moments we feel when we go to an event and are not sure how our boys will do. We have seen very few people in recent months, so this was a stretch for all of us. Large groups will often shut Nick down if we don’t prepare on the way there for who we will see, how we know them, and remind him of expected norms in social situations.

He loves jokes, so we have worked with him to tell a joke when he does not know what else to say. He did that with an aunt who he didn’t know very well when she greeted him. A few days later, she sent him back a joke via Facebook. Now, they send each other a joke of the day each day. He gets excited to hear her super corny jokes and make a video with a super corny one of his own to send back to her. His delivery gets better each day, and he is excited to read joke books and think up new jokes to tell her.    

We caught what would have been a tiny thing to most people and tried to capitalize on it. It has created a connection for him that is meaningful and will last. We never know where to expect our small miracles but are certainly thankful when we find them. They always seem to come in a moment when I need them the most. Good thing I’ve learned to pay attention to the little things and find moments of joy in what, for most people, wouldn’t feel like a momentous occasion. Who would have ever known an ugly dog and awful jokes would be two of mine if I didn’t slow down enough to notice and celebrate a world of small miracles. Maybe we all need to slow down a little more and see each moment, so we don’t miss the ones we need to see the most.  

Connecting and Reflecting

Reflection has always been a part of my practice both as an educator and as a person, but it has really intensified during this time at home. I think a lot about why we do some of the things we do and when we have missed opportunities that I don’t want to miss again. I recently participated in a reunion with five of my closest friends from college. Some of us have seen each other one-on-one, but we had not all been together in at least fifteen years. We had this amazing night of laughs online that felt exactly like old times and went on for hours and hours. I loved catching up with them, being together, and hearing the great things happening in their lives as well as some of their challenges. We repeatedly asked the question many of us do right now, “Why have we waited so long to do this?”

We have also been having a regular family dinner each night instead of our usual see each other in passing as we all rush off to activities or working late and eating in shifts. Before our “safer at home” order, we ate out often and were usually able to do that together, but this feels better, more connected, more real. Our seventeen-year-old daughter recently hosted a week of theme nights for us. She planned and made the dinners, and we all wore costumes to go with the theme. We were our favorite Disney characters, superheroes, and Scooby and the Gang. We dressed in formal wear, pajamas, beach attire, and our best ripped jeans and big hair for rock & roll night. We laughed a ton and got creative about how to make costumes out of what we could find around the house. I reflect a lot on how great all the dinners have been for us and how I will keep them going when this is all over.  

My mood and my thoughts have been like a roller coaster for the last several weeks. I am usually someone who can always find the positives and keeps pretty upbeat regardless of the circumstances, but that has been more difficult as of late. It all came to a head with the announcement that schools were closed for the remainder of the year in our state. I felt this intense grief about not seeing our learners again this year and knowing how hard that was going to be for our teachers. A crushing wave of sadness came over me, and it was reading the reflections of others and feeling more connected to them that pulled me out of it.  

George Couros has been working with our leadership team for the last few weeks to develop digital portfolios. It was important to us to continue our monthly professional development sessions with our leaders to cast forward to a time when we can physically return to our schools. We have had the good fortune to work with George several times in the last few years so we invited him back as he is familiar to us, but is also someone from the outside who can keep us focussed on continuing to grow as leaders. We are trying to capture the shifts that are happening in our teaching practices given the circumstances and our reflections on the leadership it takes to keep innovative, learner empowered practice at the forefront. He joins our online meeting each week during which we learn how to organize our thoughts and ideas into a digital portfolio to share with others. We then meet in small groups to talk about our progress and how hard it is for us in a leadership role to be vulnerable enough to share our reflections and our thoughts with each other, much less the world.  

We’ve worked to create a collaborative culture within our leadership team over the last couple of years to help the job feel less lonely. Although you get a lot of time with other people, the role of a school leader is much more isolating than people may think. We talk a lot about pushing one another with the support that helps us get the job done. Leadership during “safer at home” has taken on a whole new definition with a different kind of intensity. Many of us now spend our days in online meetings talking about instructional practice or how to support learners and families who need resources from school. We have some staff who are struggling, so we are finding ways to connect to them to offer our support as well as supporting our learners each day. A lot of it is emergency management for emergency remote teaching, which is not what any of us thought we were getting into when we signed up for a school leadership role. We wanted our leaders to still have a place to connect with each other, laugh a bit, and talk about visionary leadership, so they get to think about a time beyond emergency management. They are also learning something new, with the help of George, that we can model for teachers and learners in the years ahead.  

The night I heard we were not going to be able to go back this year, the world felt pretty daunting. I started reading the blog posts our principals, assistant principals, deans, instructional coaches, and district leaders have been writing as part of their digital portfolios. Getting to share in their reflections, both the ones that cast forward and the ones that reflect on how hard this time is, really helped me to feel hopeful. There were so many positives, all collected and shared in one space, that I got to see and experience through their reflections. I have learned things about many of them through this process that I did not know and have really enjoyed watching them make their blog sites/portfolios their own. They’re capturing the amazing work I have the absolute honor to get to support every day, our team’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the power of the human connections.  

George recently said, “Here is the best advice I can give any educator right now. Focus on connection first, everything else is second. And a very DISTANT second.” I couldn’t agree more. The connections I am making right now with old friends, my family, and our leaders through their digital portfolios are special and deeper than ever. What if we spent enough time reflecting on our connections to each other, both in our work and as people, that we never forget exactly how essential they were when we needed them most? Instead of being critical of myself for why I wasn’t doing more of this before, I am setting expectations for myself and scheduling how and when I will continue my new and re-connections at this same level when we are all face-to-face again. It makes me hopeful that my new normal may be a better one.  

This is the Twitter content I’m here for..

For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school.  Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues.  There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own.  I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together.  We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.  

Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator.  I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher.  We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential.  Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district.  We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.  

In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration.  I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it.  My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day.  I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners.  In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online.  They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself.  While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.   

I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing.  We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter.  It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community.  We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies?  We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter.  The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.  

I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.”  The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow.  That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.