Susan's Blog

Friday, June 8, 2012

Autism Mommy Swami #8: What Makes A Good Teacher?

Dear Autism Mommy Swami,

What do you look for in staff and teachers/therapists!! And what qualifies as “good” outside qualifications; I would love to know from a parent’s perspective!

–B.A. Good Teacher


Dear B.A. –

Thank you for writing and being so patient waiting for the answer. The Swami never forgets her dear fellow Momrades. And although you are not a Momrade you are a teacher, which puts you on a golden pedestal for us all. Thank you for being a teacher!  Teachers can make our kids’ lives worth living.

So, now that the Swami Blog takes comments, I am hoping many smart parents will write in to you with their opinions, but I will start, of course, with my own. What do I look for in a great teacher? I look for a sense of ownership. Because along with kindness, wisdom, training, humor, loyalty, I want Nat’s teachers and caregivers to feel a sense of ownership of him. I want him to feel like theirs. He is always, always mine, but when I look back at the people who have had the biggest impact on Nat, it is those who felt they had become Nat Experts and they were terribly proud of what they knew. They felt they had a special bond with Nat that no one else had. They had a sense of wisdom about him, a feeling of being able to predict what he’d do, what he liked, disliked, etc.

I remember one of his more recent teachers calling me to tell me about an Incident At School — you all know what I mean, the dreaded phone call from the school where you learn that something bad happened either to your kid or because of your kid. W called to tell me that there actually had not been an incident, but there would have been one a year ago, only now Nat really understood how to get his message across without getting really upset. He told me how Nat had stood still trembling a little while standing in line too long for something unavoidable. He trembled, and that was his only sign of agitation. (Of course, Autism Mommy Swami felt alarm by the word “trembled” and so she marched Nat down to the neurologist right away for a check-up, that yielded no problems!) But anyway, that day at school, Nat did not act out when he could have. He did not bite his arm, or yell, or jump, or scream, hit, or pinch. Or even pace. He let himself sit with — or in this case, stand with — the feelings; he let them pass.  As most of us know, maybe the hardest thing in life is sitting with ones feelings without acting. W was calling me because he was so proud of Nat that he had to brag to someone! This is what I mean by ownership. W felt that he was responsible for Nat in the way that a Master feels towards his Apprentice. There is respect, there are boundaries, there are lessons to teach, but there is also a deep and abiding warm pride in the student’s accomplishments, a feeling almost that they are the teacher’s accomplishments, too.

Ownership is built over time, but it could come very quickly, of course, depending on the teacher’s experience, confidence, and perspicacity. The teacher has to be able to have great insight and empathy; she has to understand the moods, the motivations, the methods of her student. These will make her a good teacher, but having along with those an overarching feeling of ownership: responsibility + love, will make her a great teacher.


Hi Susan- Given recent experiences around the country involving parents murdering their autistic children, I involuntarily cringed when I read your note that “Teachers can make our kids’ lives worth living.” I’m sure you meant that good teachers, like good parents, can make an extraordinary difference in the lives of children, autistic or not. But I feel that we must be very careful in our language to dispel the concept that some autistic lives cannot be preserved because parents are “driven” to horrific acts, often “explained” by the press as a due to a “lack of services.”

— added by Rob Gross on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm

I have found that the best teachers for my 9 year-old son are mainly intelligent, curious and independent. They read widely, but with discernment and are able to think through whether something will work for him or not. They know how to read between the lines of the nonsense that the media sometimes publishes about autism by looking at the details of the base research the media distillations are based on. They are usually not education graduates (especially where I come from – Toronto, Ontario, Canada). They are autism specialists. They care deeply about their student (and I agree, Susan, to the point where THEY are proud of our children’s accomplishments as much as we are). And most importantly, after taking in all that the research and the world is telling them, they will do what they think is best for our children – regardless whether everybody else in the autism world is doing it or not. This is what I do for my son. A great teacher is basically a professional version of a mother’s love.

— added by Melody G on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Hi Rob,
I published your comment but to be honest, I don’t really understand how it applies to this particular Swami question. The question is from a teacher looking for one parent’s perspective in what makes a teacher a good one. And yes, teachers do make our kids’ lives worth living; this is not a literal statement, it is a saying. Something makes my life worth living means it is great. There is by no means an implication that without that thing my life should not be lived. So there is nothing inherently “cringeworthy” in that statement. And yes, I meant good teachers, of course.

— added by Susan Senator on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Hi Susan- thanks for your reply. I was solely commenting on the use of the phrase, “Teachers can make our kids’ lives worth living” when discussing a disabled person. Having been to several memorials recently held for autistic children killed by their parents, I am sensitive to the power of such language. In the hands of some parents and groups, similar language been used to justify killing the disabled. I noted that I understood that *you* didn’t use the phrase in a negative manner. My point was simply that it is prudent to be cautious when using such phrases in the context of disabled people’s lives.

— added by Rob Gross on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Okay, Rob, thanks for clarifying!

— added by Susan Senator on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Thanks Susan! and I can’t wait for more parents to comment! It is really interesting to read (and think about how much I agree with) your post. A lot of times you only get to see the one side of the parents, what they want, what is not happening or being generalized at home, and if something horrible happens. There is rarely a chance (until now) to get a true view of what a parent is really thinking about us.
It does warm my heart when you speak of ownership because until you put it into words I could never explain to someone why I truly love what I do. But you are right, it is ownership. When he/she succeeds I succeed, when they are anxious and trying to work through emotions, I am right there with them to guide and model but feeling exactly what they are going through. I feel responsible for teaching every response and even if 1 out of 100 things stick, I have won.
As for the Rob Gross comment,
yes, very tragic events can happen- not just in a family who happens to have a child with Autism in their life, but it happens in families with neurotypical children every day as well. Becoming overly sensitive to common phrasing and sayings have only made the spins from media, which you have consciously realized are manipulations, the very thing you are fearing- the truth. Susan has put her life, family, and opinions on a public forum to educate and help families and individuals who are living with Autism every day. To criticize a simple sentence, clearly meant in innocence, should not have to be used in caution. Would you feel the same way if she was referring to teachers in her neurotypical children’s lives? Would you have even thought twice about the sentence? If not, then why throw stones when it is referring to a disabled child’s teachers? Is it not our goal to be treated equally no matter race, sex, age, ability, etc?

— added by Brianna on Friday, June 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Hi …. On tries to capture thoughts based on one’s experiences and words alone sometimes fail, it is tougher on the internet, and not having time to converse, have a relationship with the people involved in discussion lead to failure in understanding.

I pose this: I do not treat my children equally, that is my son with lower functioning autism and my neurotypical daughters. I love them all very much. I carried them all within me 9 months, nursed them at my breast, etc. Yet, my son’s needs are greater, his vulnerability is greater. He does not have the same ability to learn, to understand, to self-advocate. I spread myself thin doing my very best to parent them all well as a divorced mom that also works full time, but I do not treat them equally.

I work in two special needs schools. The students are vulnerable, have needs, and, more than not, their parents have great need. They are overwhelmed, have their issues, their present and lacking supports. I have a 19 year old student diagnosed with Aspergers and OCD. Student was diagnosed by an intern, so it does not really count, but it is real, as having gender identity issues. Student’s mother loves student and will not end life of student, but she, for reasons I do not even know, is very limited in her knowledge and ability to advocate for student. I would say those dedicated teachers with knowledge, that take ownership, that transcend the limited workplace resources and give greatly to student are “making student’s life worth living”. Student passed MCAS, is 19 as I said, and school district wants to cease special ed services and probably will the end of this school year or summer. It may likely happen because Mom does not know how or cannot drive student’s services differently. Student knows sadness, loneliness, experienced last summer out of placement at a summer placement less expensive, but supposedly similar services. Student came back this current year unhappy from that experience – was with lower functioning kids. Student knows enough to suspect what future holds.

Could it be that things such as this is what readers and commenters may be trying to articulate to someone as knowledgable, respected and established as Susan Senator and her readers to get them thinking more broadly about the amount of less than out there that still needs addressing? Not all schools are applying electric shock, but there are schools with less than adequate resources to make a true and lasting dent in the need, employees are becoming conditioned to the system dynamics of the workplace instead of holding clear and true to their educations that gave them professional role and there are families that lack resources to carry further what the schools can provide.

— added by Stephanie on Monday, June 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm