It’s college admission time for my daughter, so she asked if I’d like to read her essay.
But before she showed it to me, she issued a warning: “We had to write about the most influential person in our life and it’s not you. I hope you’re not too insulted because I know how competitive you are.”
As parents who spent the bulk of our time raising our children to the age of majority, we assume we played a major role in their development and success, and deserve a mention in a college essay. But if it couldn’t be me, I’m happy that it was my daughter’s middle school special education teacher Karen Mooney, who taught her the importance of self-advocacy.
On the final day of school in eighth grade, Mrs. Mooney told her that she’d have to stand up and fight for herself to succeed in high school. She was the first teacher who believed in her, and taught her to believe in herself. I think that’s the greatest gift a teacher can give to a student. And if you’re really lucky, you had a teacher like Mrs. Mooney along the way.
My “Mrs. Mooney” didn’t come until I was in college taking a literary journalism class from Robert Taylor, who wrote for the Boston Globe. Mr. Taylor gave me high marks on everything I wrote, making me think that I had a shot in journalism. He’s the reason I did an internship at the Hartford Courant during my senior year, and applied to dozens of newspapers as a new college graduate.
I had lofty dreams of working for a major metro right after college, but was brought down to earth when I got rejection letters telling me I’d need five years of experience to be considered. So I slogged away a small dailies and weeklies, happy to be paid doing something I loved. I’m not sure I’d have taken that path had it not been for Mr. Taylor, who shaped the course of my life.
But back to Mrs. Mooney.
Anyone who’s ever had a child in special education knows that it can be very trying, both for the child and parents. You want your child to get the help she needs, but worry that she’s alienated from peers in “typical” classrooms. You understand the need for a special ed classroom, but worry that it’s its own kind of prison.
This feeling can be worsened by teachers who pigeonhole students, assuming every child has the same learning disabilities and adopting a uniform teaching strategy. One of my daughter’s teachers was guilty of this, making our experience in 5th and 6th grades a nightmare.
We eventually hired two education consultants to help us navigate the system, but I worried about parents who didn’t have the funds or wherewithal to advocate for their children. Did they just accept what they were told because they didn’t have any other options? It bothered me that only financially capable people were able to afford most advocates, who charge $100 an hour for their services.
Happily, things changed when my daughter got to 7th grade. Instead of being negative and limiting like her previous teacher, Mrs. Mooney was upbeat and funny, and always made me feel optimistic about my daughter and her future. She viewed each child as an individual, with her own set of challenges and goals.
Instead of an adversarial approach to parents, Mrs. Mooney made me feel like we were all on the same team and wanted the same thing: for students to reach their full potential. During a recent visit at the middle school, she noted keeping a positive attitude is often difficult for kids in special ed, because they’ve usually had their share of failure and disappointment by the time they reach 7th grade.
“Some kids are so discouraged they just say, ‘why should I bother?'” she said. “But things are always possible if you keep an open mind. The biggest advice I give parents is you know your child better than anyone else, so don’t let anyone say they can’t do something if you believe in your heart they can.”
An educator for nearly 35 years, Mrs. Mooney is currently in her 29th year teaching at the middle school. She admits that she’s the elder statesmen among teachers, but said she has no plans to retire. She mentors new teachers, emphasizing the importance of building strong connections between students, parents and teachers.
“If you don’t have that relationship, nothing is going to work,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is all about the kids.”
In her brief profile on the district website, Mrs. Mooney notes that she knew in high school that she wanted to be a teacher.
“I have always thought that every child can learn,” she states. “With guidance, patience, encouragement and exposure to a variety of materials and experiences, every child can succeed to the best of their ability.”
Last year, my daughter visited Mrs. Mooney at the middle school. I didn’t know what they talked about. Mrs. Mooney said that she came to thank her for encouraging her to stand up for herself. I also thanked her during my visit to the school the other day. Teachers always hear from parents when they do something wrong, so I wanted her to know she played a major role in my daughter’s success in high school.
Mrs. Mooney encouraged self-advocacy, putting students rather than parents in charge of their education. This is unusual in the arena of special education, where parents often feel over-protective and that they must fight the system for their kids.
An educator reminded me why this is so: schools are on the defensive with any child with an IEP (Individualized Education Program) because of the fear of a lawsuit if they fail to provide services. I get it, but feeling like you’re constantly bucking heads is the last thing parents want when they meet with school officials. And I’ll admit it, I lost it on more than one occasion at these meetings.
This is why Mrs. Mooney is such a breath of fresh air. Instead of bureaucracy and red tape, there was care, concern and encouragement. We were lucky, very lucky, that she crossed our path when she did. I just wish every family was as fortunate.