What I wish I’d known when I was teaching by David Bara

calendarNovember 14 2019

When I was a special needs teacher, I thought I knew lots. I was enthusiastic, I went on courses, listened, talked and did a master’s degree in Education. Along the way I had two children (well I didn’t, my wife Emma did).

At school, I tried to advise and support the parents of kids with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Yet it was only when my own children were diagnosed with medical conditions and learning difficulties that I realized how little I knew then and how little I understood. Here are some of the things I wish I had been aware of before:

Anti – depressants – I wish I’d known when parents were on anti-depressants. I took anti-depressants for a while when my daughter was going through treatment for a brain tumour at the age of 2. I was not a worse parent because of the drugs but a different parent. I did not always fully absorb what the teachers where telling me about my son, who was having to deal with school on top of having a very sick little sister. Looking back it would have been good to tell the teachers that I was on anti-depressants, not so they could treat me with sympathy but so they could make sure I fully grasped the information they were telling me, so we could better work together to support my son.

Health issues of family members – I wish I’d known if pupils had close friends or family members who were ill, and if parents thought it was affecting their child. It’s not that I want teachers to be social workers but I saw the impact that my daughter’s cancer had on my son and how he changed and how we changed as parents. I saw how my priorities for my son and daughter education changed, I wanted them to learn and progress, but I was far more concerned with the fact that they had friends, were happy and developing emotionally. This may cause a few issues and may not be in line with the school or teacher’s targets, but my kids have gone through a significant trauma and, rightly or wrongly, I believe that if they are emotionally grounded and happy, they will develop academically.

The main carers– I wish I’d known who actually cared for children on a day to day basis. When my daughter was going through treatment, we were very lucky. We had a lot of friends and family who looked after my son, taking him to and from school, was fed (too well at times), he was rewarded (a bit too much, he really got spoiled), he had sleep overs, play dates and sitters but messages from school often got lost. In many ways there was an inconsistency of care when what was really needed was consistency. As a family we were in a crisis, we were playing the short-term survival game, but as a teacher, I realise the need for thinking in the long term and how important it is for plans and systems to be put in place.

Special needs – I wish I’d known if a child’s parent or carer had any special needs or access issues so I could tailor the way that I communicate to better meet their needs. A parent who is illiterate or unable to read English would need to be spoken to, possibly through an interpreter. A carer who has fibromyalgia may have good days and other days where they are just too exhausted to take information on board, so may need to be told more than once.

Cultural values of the family – I wish had known and understood about some of my pupils’ cultural backgrounds. I have seen children told off for not using a knife and fork despite the fact that the families didn’t use knives and forks at home. At times, parents would not tell me things or argue with me because they had been brought up to view SEND in a different way. It would have been great to know the backgrounds so that I could have approached things in a way that bridged some of those cultural gaps.  

Finally, let’s not forget that teaching for most people is a vocation, most teacher are passionate about what they do and most want to make sure our kids do their best. The best way to work with teachers is to work with them, to be honest with them. You don’t have to reveal family secrets but do keep them updated with information that might impact on their mood, behaviour and understanding at school. After all, we want the kids to access education properly and maximize their true potential. 

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David Bara (MEd PGCE MBa HONS) has 15 years in the field of special educational needs as a teacher, university lecturer, researcher and a SEND parent. He and his wife, Emma, set up as a way of tackling some of issues that surround access to places, spaces and services for them as family and for the families around them.

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  1. I’m a teacher whose own children have chronic health issues and have been through a major trauma too. My only aim now is for them to grow up and live happy lives. They learn best when they feel safe and happy. You have summed that up brilliantly.

  2. This article was good.I am glad that you were so transparent.
    As a teacher in special needs I found that having an idea of the family culture and of any special needs the parent might have, helps with tailoring an education plan for the child.I agree the relationship the teacher has with parents is key to the development of the child.In understanding how the parents feels about the disability, deals with their child’s disability at home and how the family interacts with their community; I am better able to communicate with the parent about the developmental needs of their child. There are certain aspects of this communication process that I sometimes find difficult however; and that is knowing more about the family/parents/community than you intended to.