Congratulations! My daughter Rachel is going to be in your general education class this year. I suspect that you haven’t had a student with Down syndrome in your general education class before. I suspect you are a little nervous, and you might need some information so I wanted to share. Regardless of your faith persuasion, I hope it brings you confidence to know that we have been praying for you since before Rachel was born!
As you prepare to welcome Rachel and many other students, I want to remind you that you are not alone. While it is your responsibility to help educate Rachel, you are fortunate that you have an outstanding resource teacher and paraprofessionals to give support. Still, she is a part of your class. Yes, she has Down syndrome but she is in your class to learn and that is not the resource teacher or paraprofessional’s sole responsibility. I hope you do not see Rachel as a burden but as a curious student who will work very hard to do her best and who will learn differently than some of your other students. Her best will not look like most of the other students' and you won’t be there when we are watching the Olympics and she says “Zimbabwe is in Africa. I learned that in school.” You will probably never know everything she learns from you. We know she won’t learn exactly what the other students do, but she will learn. She will not regurgitate things on a test like some of your other students. She’ll need her homework and test presented in a certain way to find out what she knows. Then again, most of us have different ways of learning.
Don’t panic about her standardized test scores bringing down your numbers. Though I am not a fan of standardized tests, even after the passage of IDEA we had years of many educators not teaching curriculum to our students with special needs. So the pendulum swung a little too far the other way. That isn’t your fault, but it isn’t Rachel’s fault either. Please remember to give Rachel a little extra time to process things. The 10-second rule is a good one. Give her 10 seconds to think about the first question before you move on to the next one. Please communicate with us. If there is something good or something of concern or something you just aren’t sure about, come to us and we can help. Come sooner instead of later.
Then, I want you to know that you are lucky to have me as a parent to work with you. There will be days you won’t believe that. There will be days you are certain that I am possessed, but I do what I need to do to see to it that my daughter gets what she needs. A long time ago I was told that Rachel couldn’t be in the general education kindergarten because she couldn’t “function” in a general education classroom. We demanded that she be fully included and now I just say, “The proof is in the product.” That is just one of my battle scars. I have a lot of scars that you don’t know about. Maybe that will help you to understand why I am a self-proclaimed high maintenance mom. I am not apologizing for that. I will also be your biggest fan and supporter. I will bring you special treats, write letters of support for you, ask legislature to give you more money, nominate you for awards and so forth. First and foremost, I will always be advocating for my daughter to learn and helping you in any way I can.
Rachel is fiercely independent. Her independence is a gift and a curse. Her independence will help her in life but it also makes her not want to have help. No matter how much she loves the para’s, she really would prefer they go away and has told them so from time to time. Honestly, she doesn’t want a paraprofessional anywhere near her because she is a 13-year-old diva girl who wants to be like everyone else. She wants to have friends. She is boy crazy. She wants to be included. She knows that there are some things at school that are very hard for her. She wishes it wasn’t that way, but it is. She will tell you that her brain is full or tired and I am guessing that is true sometimes. A lot of what she does is tied to that need to be one of the girls. She is a pleaser and usually will not intentionally try to make you irritable. She will also tell you what she thinks you want to hear in order to be a pleaser. Rachel is also funny, loving, loyal, and confident. She has great stage presence and will tell you so.
Our family has high expectations so we expect Rachel to do her best. We expect her to learn. We know that some things are hard for her but that is life. Life is hard for all of us sometimes, and we don’t have room for pity. We want her to grow up to be independent. She wants to be a teacher, get married, and live in a pink house. We want that for her too and we know that what we do now impacts that.
We are anticipating a great year in 7th grade. I want to thank you for investing your life in education. I believe that teaching is the highest of calls. We have been blessed with the best teachers I can imagine. If you could speak to most of them preschool through today, almost every one one of them would say, “I learned more from Rachel than she did from me.” They would say that may sound cliché but they are better teachers to all students and better human beings because they had my Rachel in their class. In May, I suspect you will be able to say that, too.
- Jawanda Mast