There is only so much that anyone can understand about another person’s situation. You can empathize with a friend, family member, colleague, etc. about their own particular struggles or issues. You can study the parts of the situation intellectually and try to apply logical solutions that have research behind them. You can be a supportive listener, be active in helping them and can best try to put yourself in their shoes and step up to help. You can never truly know how it feels to live their experience (as they can never truly know yours as the case may be).
This life lesson hit home for me specifically after I spent years and years as a teacher (grades 1-9 spanning my career), an inclusive education teacher, and years as a school administrator as well. I would describe myself as caring and incredibly invested in the overall success of the school as a whole but also in each individual student (and their families ultimately). Most of my career was in relatively smaller schools and there is a real sense of ‘family’ that is built and experienced by most if not all. This was always a positive and I felt that people knew that I was invested in their children’s success authentically and I would argue that to true.
As an educator, I had a special spot in my heart for any student that struggled in any way: behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally, etc. I felt like I completely understood what their families were going through trying to support them through whatever challenges they faced. I thought that I had a full grasp of the feelings, effort and worry that these parents were experiencing. They would sometimes allude to the fact that there was no way that I could possibly but appreciated my efforts and true concern. This would wound me a bit. I won’t lie. The old, “You can’t possibly understand because you don’t have kids of your own,” would sting as I felt that was inaccurate and did not take into account the many sleepless nights I had trying to plan ways to better support their child.
Until I became a parent.
I hate to be told, “I told you so…” but I can imagine that all of those wonderful parents would have the right to at least think it if they never said it to my face. I could finally realize the true depths that parents can feel for their child, especially if they are struggling in any sense. Facing a long term or more serious health concern for your child is not something that another person can fully grasp no matter how much they do all of the incredibly kind things I mentioned at the top of the article.
This experience of having my own child with some struggles has completely reframed the way that I approach education, meeting with parents, guiding staff in their classroom practice and communicating with parents, sharing reports, etc. I can see the times when I thought that what I was saying or doing was the most helpful thing at the time but may not have been. I thought it was and had the best of intentions, but sometimes I really needed to just ease up a bit, give a bit more time, gently nudge when needed, listen a bit more, slow down, and a ton of other specifics I can remember.
I know that I cannot go back but I can certainly move forward with this new insight and understanding. Although each person’s story and experience is different (and I know that I can never truly understand each person’s specific experiences fully), there are some common threads that I hear through personal friends, colleagues, research, social media posts, and family members as well.
There is an old saying, “You do not know what you do not know,” and this has come to ring true for me. If you are a parent reading this, you know. I firmly believe that with a focus on building both communication and relationship, we can begin to build that common understanding. We may never have the experience of being truly understood, but having this new insight has helped to shape and hone my own practice as a parent and as an educator. A healthy and honest home/school partnership can be one of the most important relationships that affect your child(ren) and their own growth. That should remain the focus for all no matter the side of the story.