Embracing Failure: Online School

Oh goodness. This should be an easy one. We all failed, right?
Right?

I don’t know any parents or students (or educators) for whom online school was a breeze. There were some positive outcomes, and some students I’m sure thrived in that form of school and may still be participating in online education today.

Our son is autistic and mostly nonverbal.

For the rest of the 2020 school year, from mid-March to June, we handled online school fairly well. We established a routine. He was in class twice a day and had a one-on-one time with his teacher or paraeducator. I created gym class with jogging. We participated in art at home. I ordered flash cards for math and reading, art supplies, books, and other items and we made a good effort. AJ (our son) seemed to understand that everything was different, we were all home—and he seemed to enjoy “Zoom School” as we first called it. It was new and fun to see everyone on a computer screen. We started Zoom calls with family members and friends and it was something he enjoyed participating in.

Summer came, and we registered for summer school. And received nothing. Our school district failed to provide enough resources for students with disabilities, though the district officials claimed at the Special Needs PTSA meeting that every student with disabilities who desired to be in summer school would have placement. A long story short, our son received a placement in general education summer school services and, except for Math, in which there was an assistant who happened to be a special education math paraeducator, there wasn’t much instruction for AJ. The district failed to provide for students with disabilities, like many other districts, because we don’t prioritize the most vulnerable. We almost always prioritize the majority.

And then fall of 2020 came. Now we had a full day schedule of online school using a video platform that was not as functional as Zoom, but contracted by the district so there was no choice. We also had a new teacher, who quickly realized that a full day online was not possible for students in her class (and I honestly don’t know how typical children in middle school handled all this, either. Probably why so many didn’t put their cameras on and so many were disengaged).

I stopped doing PE with my son, although his school PE teacher went above and beyond by making videos for AJ and teaching him new workouts, including him thoroughly in the online class. However, I also stopped using the flash cards after a while. It went from trying to help my son learn, to trying to help him retain, to trying to help us all survive the year. I have a full-time pastoral position plus a part-time regional position, plus I took on some additional writing projects for more income last year. My husband also works, but I took on Monday and Friday and he took on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We jugged home and school and everything, like so many others, and were exhausted like everyone else.

When school finally resumed last spring, it was a welcome relief. Only eight weeks, but our son’s behavior (which had gone downhill at home—again, like any other preteen in the pandemic) suddenly shifted. He was happy! He was with his friends and his teachers! And yes, he kept a mask on all day (they do get mask breaks outside).

When we hit summer, I didn’t bother signing up for summer school. We barely signed up for camp. We were so done. So. Done.

Now that the school year is back and we’re about seven weeks in, there’s a part of me that feels like a failure. I notice areas where I could have helped my son learn more. I could have done more. I should have done more.

And then the voice snaps inside me: “YOU SURVIVED A PANDEMIC.”*

Our son survived a pandemic. He’s fully vaccinated, and he’s happy. He’s with his friends again.

Long ago, I had to learn to give up the expectations that I and others have for my child. Expectations based on a neurotypical understanding of the world and who he should be. But it’s still hard to give up those expectations on myself as a parent. I want him to have it all, to have all the resources, to do better, to be better. However, he does his best when I am not pressuring him or putting my own expectations on him or me.

Going back to my first post on Embracing Failure and Merriam-Webster’s list of definitions, I’d say this might fall into definition number 3a: a falling short (deficiency). I may not have done all I could. I may not have lived up to the expectations I had on myself, or perceived others had for me. However, it’s about that definition number 4, and refusing to accept that. I can accept the other definitions, but it’s number 4 we must reject:

You are not a failure.
I am not a failure.
We are survivors.
We embrace our failures as our shortcomings, but we do not wrap our identity in it.

Educators and parents and students:

You are not a failure.

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*The pandemic is not over. So perhaps this should read “you are surviving a pandemic” but I’d like to believe/hope/pray the worst is now behind us, even if we still have a way to go. As a friend said, “The water’s going down but the dove came back, so we still have a while to ride this out on the ark.”

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