A New Adventure in Education for This Veteran Teacher by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston
The time finally arrived…my first baby, who is five and a half years old, is now officially a Kindergarten student! One minute she was a little infant who needed me for everything she needed in life…love, food, shelter, protection. Now she’s trying to assert her independence at every turn. She wants a snack…she wants to get it herself. It’s time to get dressed…she insists she can do everything but tie her shoes. She doesn’t need me to buckle her into the car, make her sandwich or spell her name. I’m sure that Kindergarten is going to bring about even more desires for independence. If it doesn’t, then something isn’t quite right. This is going to be the first of the many steps along the educational ladder that every child experiences. Except in our case, things will be a little bit different…
Because I’ll be along for the ride. Literally.
Kerrianne is officially a Kindergarten student at Connections Academy, and I’m her learning coach. Even though her first week was one of the toughest weeks in my life since I started living life with fibromyalgia, I can truly say I’m ecstatic to have this role in her education. It’s been extremely tough especially given all the cognitive difficulties fibromyalgia throws at me. I had a few technical glitches with their website I couldn’t figure out on my own, and I do have to say I felt like a total fool when I called technical support and realized mid-sentence what I was doing wrong. (They didn’t make me feel like a fool…I did that all myself when I felt stupid for not knowing on my own that I was making such a silly, stupid mistake with something that wasn’t really that complicated. Thank God they were nice about it! God knows I’ve dealt with many others who have experienced my lapses in intelligence with less understanding and kindness!) Fibromyalgia has made this a difficult path to take on SO many levels. Because of the ways chronic pain affects my life, the way it can come and go without knowing the when and how of it, we’ve never lived with a very strict schedule. Fibromyalgia has made organization extremely difficult, and my ability to do housework has suffered greatly. All of these characteristics of our family life since the arrival of fibromyalgia make something like virtual learning really tough to get used to. It brings a lot of new fears with it…if I’ve had a lot of trouble getting us to social events and family gatherings without canceling will I be able to get us to her school’s field trips? Will the deficiencies my brain now suffers from hold her education back in any way? Will I ever catch up on all the housework and other tasks I do so slowly since fibromyalgia has taken my strength, stamina and energy especially when so much more has been added to my plate with Kerrianne’s lessons and other activities?
As parents, my husband and I don’t feel we have a choice other than to send her to CA. Kerrianne dealt with my breast cancer in a very difficult way…a way that we’re still trying to help her work through now even into remission. Two years ago when I was treating for cancer, she was supposed to be potty training. We had previously tried multiple times and had to back off because her interest was waning, but she had finally reached a point of success right around my diagnosis. We thought she was finally going to see this through to wearing underwear. However somewhere along the way she repressed as much as she could, possibly in an attempt to hold onto control of something in her life at a time when she was scared to watch what I was going through. She’s always been an extremely intelligent little girl, but that doesn’t put her at a higher level psychologically or emotionally than other three-year-old children, especially when something as scary as cancer enters the picture. So she dealt with it the best she could and ended up creating her own obstacle to overcome. So now at age five, she’s still struggling with potty training. Specialists have told us she repressed for so long that her brain has moments when she doesn’t feel the signals to go to the bathroom. We’re working on it as a family with the help of specialists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, but we still have a VERY long way to go. (In fact her little sister who will be four next month is living an almost parallel life when it comes to potty training, probably because she hasn’t gotten much modeling from her big sister to follow. So we’re actually working with two little ones to get past this.) This is the main reason my husband agreed to let her start school through virtual learning. He’s always worried about the socialization component of homeschooling vs traditional school, but neither of us felt it was fair to put her in a classroom full of other children who don’t have or wouldn’t understand these kinds of problems…it would only set her up for social stigma, possible bullying, and likely more problems that would only make this process take even longer. (I actually only share her story because I know other parents must be going through something similar – the specialists told me they see many children, more than you’d expect, up to age 7 or 8 with this problem. So I feel there must be others out there feeling as frustrated and alone as we do, and maybe discussing it will reach them and help them in some way. But I myself have dealt with criticism for talking about it rather than keeping her story private.) And it wouldn’t be fair to Kerrianne’s other sides of her personality, her intelligence, love of learning and drive to excel, to put off Kindergarten for another year to see if she gets past this and can enter Kindergarten at age six. That too would just feel like another defeat for her to get past.
My health problems were actually what started my thinking about this a few years ago. When I started realizing I wasn’t having much luck finding physicians who could help me beat fibromyalgia and regain control of my life, I started to worry that fibromyalgia was going to continue creating roadblocks for me as a parent. When my daughters were babies, we found ourselves housebound much of the time unless we had helpers who could help me. Mornings during the cold winter months were extremely difficult. Many days I just suffered until my pain medication helped the pain subside and allowed me to move with less pain and effort. When I got to the point that this happened other times, autumn, spring and summer were no longer off limits for debilitating mornings, and I found myself worried about how I would get up and function well enough to get a Kindergarten student off to school every morning with my three-year-old in tow. I was really worried that she’d become an attendance problem for school administrators all because of me. I couldn’t even schedule outings with a helper for mornings earlier than 11 a.m. many days…how was I going to get a child to school on time by 8:30???
As a former educator I had many other reasons for wanting to try this. My research of our school district didn’t impress me, and the neighborhood school she’d attend was one of the lowest rated in the district. I myself attended parochial school followed by an all-girls college prep high school, so my dreams of a quality education for my children were always strong. Her ability to learn quickly kind of worried me. I was concerned traditional school would bore her and my usually well-behaved little girl would start to develop discipline problems or even worse, lose her love of learning. As a former teacher I know firsthand the difficulties involved with trying to meet the needs of every student in the room. As a teacher, I had experience with this and knew it wouldn’t be a problem in my classroom. Administrators made sure I had the training to take over where my excellent college education left off. But now that my perspective was one of a parent, my concern led to worries that she’d find herself in classrooms of less experienced teachers. I didn’t want her educational future in the hands of teachers or administrators who weren’t willing to do the extra work required to challenge her…because differentiating instruction IS a LOT of work, work that not every educator knows how to do or sometimes wants to do (as I had witnessed in the work place working among teachers who showed signs of this way of thinking. My research of our options led me to more stories, this time from other parents who personally encountered this kind of problem in public schools.). My daughter learned addition in a matter of five minutes as a preschooler…it wasn’t going to be acceptable to give her a week of busy work practicing addition problems every day while the others in the room were working to master the skill. As a teacher I had many students in my classes who had problems respecting the teacher’s authority and following rules. As a parent, I realized that each time the teacher needs to redirect a student’s behavior, time is taken away from everyone else’s instruction. In my past life of a classroom teacher, I never saw those interruptions as such a major detriment to learning. I just chalked them up to part of my job description…keeping everyone on task, redirecting those who drifted away, and doing my best to reach every student with whatever tricks I kept up my experienced sleeve. But as a parent, my perspective has to change, and it’s all for the good of my child. I mean no disrespect toward other students, average, special ed, gifted, or otherwise. And I still respect educators greatly and firmly believe they aren’t given enough appreciation for all the hard work they put into the future of our children. I just believe when it comes to the needs of my child, traditional education can’t offer us enough. And since we aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford private school, this is our only option.
My disability will never make traditional homeschooling possible. This first week of school left me too exhausted each day to get anything done after the girls were in bed, which is the time I usually try to accomplish whatever being with them all day left undone, so even less work was accomplished around here than my usual (which luckily has improved a tiny bit over the past year.) I’m perpetually behind with housework. My memory causes me to forget without warning that I have doctors’ appointments scheduled, and I end up being an accidental no show. I even have days when I can’t comprehend written directions and mess up whatever task I was attempting to complete with their help (Babyproofing was an interesting time full of double the errands – first trips to Babies R Us to purchase the materials needed followed by a second trip to replace whatever I had to throw away because I messed up the directions so badly the devices were useless.) Given all this, I could never put together a curriculum on my own no matter how badly I wanted it. I’m still struggling with trying to find ways to incorporate this into our family routines, especially with my very stubborn, hard-headed, “independent” three-year-old along for the ride. But I’m confident with the help of my husband and others, including my daughter’s teacher at CA, that we can work as a team to make this successful. Connections makes everything almost foolproof…everything, from directions to discussion questions to possible correct answers, are all scripted in the lesson guides. There are live lessons she can watch online that make some classes even easier for me. And Kerrianne makes it easy too…all Mommy has to do is read the words she can’t, and she completes the assignments with ease! And the great thing about laptops? If I’m flaring badly on a particular day, we can all lay in bed together and get the work done! And virtual learning’s flexibility allows us to complete lessons on weekends if we need to break the days down into even shorter blocks for either of our needs. Or we can start as late or as early as my fibromyalgia allows.
Once my husband gets his own school year underway, he’ll join me as a learning coach and be able to take over after 3 p.m., and my mother is going to be another learning coach for the sake of helping us get to field trips. So I do have assistance…I’m not in this alone. And we’ll just have to find a way to afford to hire extra help if it becomes necessary to add another learning coach to the mix. I feel a different feeling of fulfillment that being a parent hasn’t given me…a feeling I haven’t felt since I was in the classroom over six years ago. And I’m having fun!. My daughter’s enthusiasm is contagious…being her learning coach has renewed my own passion as a life-long learner that fibromyalgia dulled when my cognitive dysfunction set in. My positive outlook that I can beat fibro’s hold on me has returned, and I’m anxious to try new ideas for beating it as well as for finally getting my blog off the ground to share my hopeful success story with others battling chronic pain conditions. I’m actually more excited than nervous about this journey now, and I’m hoping the only direction we can move in is up, both of us achieving our dreams as we soar to new heights of success in each of our lives. Wish me luck! I don’t believe I need it, but it couldn’t hurt!