The Village Northern Beaches

A story of hope and some important lessons from a parent/school principal

Hi. I’m the mum of a gorgeous 39-year-old man. I’m also a retired schoolie and have been a classroom teacher of mainstream and special needs schools, a consultant for Maths and Priority Schools and for the last 10 years of my working life, I was a school principal.

I became a single mum when my son was 2 and boy was that a difficult journey. It took years to navigate the family law courts. I had to leave the city and my job that I really enjoyed and relocate us to my family’s farm. One brother still lived at home with our parents, and I was fortunate that they had room for us. Another brother was living on the farm with his wife and looking at having their own kids. While it took me a bit of time to be happy about being back on the farm, it was the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to us. We were no longer on our own and had the support of our family. We were taken in, wrapped in their love, kindness, and for the first time in quite a while, I felt we were safe.

We lived there for the next 3 years, and we began to heal. I enrolled in uni and then was given a job in a special needs school. 2 days a week, my son travelled into preschool on the bus with my cousins’ sons where he spent time with kids his own age under the care of a great friend of mine. 1 day he spent with his grandma, and he learnt the joy of oral storytelling. Another was with his aunty who taught him how to bake and potter in the garden, and on the last day, he went with his Grandad and 2 uncles where he learnt about the farm, how to ride a motorbike, drive a vehicle and how to swear really well at the dogs!! We still refer to his uncles as his 2 ‘dads’ and they continue to let him ride his bike like a madman on the farm and give him their shoulders and advise when he needs it.

And then it was time for school. I moved into my own place and continued to study part-time. It became apparent that my son had some learning difficulties, but he was never tested as he was the son of a single parent, and this was an attitude I fought for years! I was an educator myself, but in those days our opinions or thoughts weren’t asked for and we weren’t consulted with much at all. It was the job of the school to educate the child and ours as parents was to raise them. So I rarely questioned or took the system to task, and as a result, he struggled throughout his school life with little if any significant support or understanding that he wasn’t slow, lazy, inconsistent, unable to concentrate…and the list could go on and I’m sure many of you have experienced the same thing.

My son was amazing at sport, and this gave him a feeling of self-worth and belonging, something he didn’t always feel at school. He finished his HSC, took a gap year then discovered TAFE where he studied hospitality management and later became a chef, something he really excelled in. It was at TAFE that he found fantastic support and understanding from a great group of educators, and he began to believe more in himself as capable of learning. I will always be grateful that these educators saw in him what his family saw every day, grit, determination, resilience, a desire to do well and the chance to show his strengths with ongoing support and understanding.

In his mid-thirties, he made the decision to study full time at uni and is currently in his last year. Mind you, if we thought it was difficult at school, he went into a course of really high achieving kids and a system of educators who I don’t think had ever worked with a person with such gaps in their learning. He read on his application form that he could ask for support. He then had to pay for an assessment and he was diagnosed with a learning disability which gave him access to a range of supports. It’s nearly broken him a few times and there have been times that he’s seriously considered walking away from it all, but he’s had to fight all his life to set and achieve his goals, and I’m really proud of his capacity as a human being to battle the ignorance about his learning disability, overcome so many barriers and doggedly insist that his educators provide him with the tools and support to get him to the point where he has almost completed his degree.

I almost hear you say, when are you going to get to the point. I make no apologies for the length of this as I feel it’s important you have the opportunity to read about how a child and those who care for him have had to fight for his rights. After he put his head around the results of his assessment 4 years ago, he now knows that he’s not stupid or dumb. What he does have is a disability that has caused him so much grief over the years because he wasn’t properly assessed and therefore diagnosed. He now knows how he learns and why he finds aspects of learning so difficult. He knows what he has to do to achieve his goal of getting a degree and his commitment and hard work is to admired!

While I didn’t challenge the system enough when he was at school because of the times and my belief that the system would provide support and assist him, over the years and through my various jobs as a teacher, my knowledge and understanding has grown immensely. Raising my son and watching his struggles has provided me with a great deal of empathy, understanding and knowledge. As the leader of 2 schools, I’ve been consistently persistent in ensuring that teachers have a better understanding of the differences in children and their need to work closely with parents to provide adjustments which will enable the child to grow and learn, to become the best version of themselves. I know that not everyone I’ve worked with fully grasped it, but I gave it a red-hot go, and know that many children and their families were the beneficiaries of my doggedness! So, while I sometimes feel I may have not done the absolute best for my son, he has certainly taught me so much and helped grow me as an educator and leader, yet another aspect that I’m grateful to him for.

The lessons I’ve learnt along the way are many.

> If you have a question, ask it.
> If you’re unsure of something, ask for clarification.
> If you don’t think that your child’s needs are being met or receiving the necessary adjustments and support, organise a meeting and discuss this with their teacher.
> If your child needs an advocate, then be one.
> If you need support and services, ask for it.
> If you want your child assessed by the school counsellor and or you don’t believe they’re meeting their learning and developmental milestones, remember that the earlier the intervention occurs, the better chance your child has.
> Remember that this is not a journey that you as parents need to travel solo. It does take a village to raise a child, and the village consists of people who are there to support and help you and your child to grow into an amazing adult. I firmly believe every living soul at some stage of their life needs help and someone to advocate for them and to walk beside them so they can achieve their goals and grow into the amazing person they were born to be.
> Build respectful relationships with the people around you, particularly your child’s school and its community.
> Learn to approach situations with calmness and fact. At times emotion, particularly anger and frustration, gets in the road of finding solutions.
> And lastly, don’t beat yourself up if sometimes you don’t quite get it right. I did that for years, and the guilt I felt was not easy to live with.
> Remember that you are doing and giving your best and you should be proud of that.

Thank you for reading our story and it’s been a pleasure to share it with you.

Anonymous for The Village Northern Beaches