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Empathy and Understanding is a Two-Way Street

As a teacher you feel attacked by parent advocates.

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Parent advocates feel ignored by the “educational system” and feel that their child is being failed.

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By choosing to be a teacher you set out with altruistic purpose into the world of education only to find you were not adequately equipped, in a system no longer about the education you remember as a child, and with parents standing apart and against you, the teacher, and more.  The unfair thing is that you are a symbol of the system whether you want to be or not, and the burden that entails.

On the flip side, parents find they have a child that is struggling learning to read.  This is a bright child and their struggle doesn’t make sense.  The parent asks questions to the school staff, which includes the teacher, and almost always are told, by someone within that school building, the child is too young to test, that there’s nothing to worry about, that the child’s struggle is normal and that they will grow out of it.  The result is the parent finds themselves standing alone, watching their child struggle, unable to move forward. 

That smiling voice of denial starts at the child’s school, and parents are unable to differentiate between teachers and administrators when faced with that denial.  What the parent knows, what their reality is, is that their child isn’t learning and the school their child attends is denying their child help.

Compound this with the sum of experience on both sides that leads to their pre-determined judgment of the other person.  Fair?  No.  Reality?  For many, yes.

The chasm that separates teacher from parent, parent from teacher, is solidified in stone before either side can even try.

Two separate realities. 

For those in the fray, it is difficult to find empathy for the other side.

Teachers feel attacked.

Parents feel denied and ignored while their child suffers.

Which is worse?

While that’s a stark question, it is not one that can be answered because everyone has their own truth, reality and pain and until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you have no right for judgment.  Truth is, you have no right for judgment period whether you understand or not. 

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I am not a teacher, nor have I ever been.  My friends who are teachers have told me horror stories.  These stories include the peer pressure to drink the district Kool-Aid, despite your disagreement with the ideological belief being espoused, and failure to drink the Kool-Aid makes you an outsider, ridiculed by your peers.  I’ve been told about being written up and teachers being fired for telling a parent they thought their child had dyslexia and should get them tested.  I’ve been told about district policies that specifically state that teachers are not to refer children for testing (note I’ve never seen these policies so this may be urban legend, but if you have one I’d love to see it and I’ll never say who I got it from). 

I know parents can be awful and can heap abuse as well.  I’ve seen it happen, and personally believe that name calling and screaming should never happen under any circumstances, from either side.  The hours are too long, the appreciation is little, the environment is cruel, the pay is a joke, and those are just the big headlining reasons why being a teacher is so hard.

As someone who has personally experienced emotional abuse in the work place, until you’ve experienced it yourself, it is a reality that is difficult to comprehend.

Back to the flip side, as a parent fighting for my son’s life, yes, his LIFE, I am unapologetic of the depths I have to go to in order to do just that.

For those rolling their eyes and saying I’m being all maudlin (to all non-Southerns, look it up, it’s a great word) in saying a parent is fighting for their child’s life, tell me then how to manage a 7 year old child beating their head on a counter screaming they’re stupid as they watch their friends do “simple” things like read, that they cannot do no matter how hard they try; or how to manage a child who is threatening suicide as young as 11 because they feel like a failure; or how to manage a child who no longer has any self-esteem because they cannot do a seemingly simple thing like read when everyone else around them can.  Am I really being maudlin?  Is that really over dramatic? 

To the parents who live this reality, no, it isn’t.

Here on my blog I share my family’s story in order to help and support others, and to give myself some catharsis from the challenge that is our journey.  For my words, I’ve taken harsh criticism from teachers for attacking teachers, and I’ve taken equally harsh criticism from parents for defending teachers because they feel it diminishes the parent struggle, and their personal experiences with teachers have been so horrible that they cannot tolerate anyone defending them.

Either way, it’s a Catch-22.

Recently there was a blog post (not by me) that said that if parents didn’t stop attacking teachers then the move to change education would die.

Well, I disagree.

To ask for parents to be empathetic with teachers and to ask teachers to be empathetic with parents requires possibly more than either side can give. Plain and simple.

Note that I said empathy, not sympathy, meaning the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, not feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.  We all feel sympathy for each other’s position, but true empathy?

Teachers, let me ask you a question, within your school, or even within your own education as a child, was there a really awful teacher?  You know the one I mean.  This was the teacher who was mean for the sake of mean; and / or they didn’t care about the kids, and / or they talked badly about them every day, and / or they are just phoning it in until retirement, and / or even took pleasure in their machinations of homework / test / school work torture, and / or they refused to learn new ways to teach because they’ve been doing this long enough to know what works and what doesn’t work and if you don’t get it then you’re just lazy or stupid or both.  If you don’t know this person, have never experienced it, then I want your life.  Truly.

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The first teacher I remember who hated me, yes, I said hated, was my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. H.  She hated my mother therefore she hated me.  She was mean to me and I could never figure out what I had done to deserve her cruelty.  She wasn’t mean to my classmates, only me.  I was a child who wanted to please and be accepted and she couldn’t stand the sight of me.  I’ve never forgotten her and can still clearly see her face.

Well, most parents working for their child’s dyslexia advocacy, encounters at least one, if not more, of those teachers.  Given that experience, how would you respond as a parent?  Would you be jaded?  On edge?  On guard?  Waiting for the other shoe to drop with each new teacher?  Maybe charge forward a little too strongly at the slightest provocation?

Or, take this scenario.

My son’s first grade teacher was a young woman, fresh out of college, just married and at the beginning of her career.  My son’s class was her first teaching gig.  The year started off smoothly.  At the first parent / teacher conference she used big words like “automaticity,” and frankly, looking back, she was trying to both impress and shame me with those big words.  I let it lie as we loved the school and so things carried on.  I dropped him off early for extra reading instruction with her two days a week.  She remained sweet and she answered my questions with kindness.  I participated in the class as much as I could, purchased what was needed for the projects, parties, etc., and was a generous donor to the school’s annual fundraising campaign. 

Come mid-Spring, I asked her a question about the reading assignment and she ripped my head off in front of all the students in the classroom.  Literally, since graduating from high school, I don’t think I’ve ever had that much attitude dropped on top of my head by a single person.  She behaved just like a “mean girl.”  Just two weeks later, she did it again, when I asked about my son’s reading.  On neither occasion did I in turn rip her head off, though trust me when I say I wanted to, because I was going to be the one adult in the room filled with fourteen 7-year-old children, and one 22 year old child.

Did I attack her?  I can guarantee you that I did not.  Did I deserve how I was treated?  Absolutely not.  Is she just a bad apple and therefore a poor example?  Maybe, but still, the example stands.  Her justifications for treating me with such contempt were never explained.   

I have more examples I can share from my own personal experience, as can everyone I know, the culmination of which does not make our experiences one-offs, but a reality we must face.

But know that I can also tell you about amazing teachers who have loved my child and been generous of their hearts and spirits with him, worked with him, were patient with him, and celebrated each success along with us.  They wanted to do all they could to help, whether they were able or not, they wanted to, and I knew it.  I am always grateful for them and to them.  

On the teacher side, I know you can share equally horrible stories of parents who won’t take responsibility for their child or behavior, won’t support your asks, won’t help with anything, blame you for everything, etc.  Those parents are impossible to deal with, I know, and like bad-apple teachers can do to parents, these horrible parents can make teachers quite jaded.  Depending on the school environment, those parents may even be in the majority, which makes their toll on you all the more egregious.  They, like the system, are abusive, and serve no real purpose other than adding to the Everest like stress that is your job.  I make no apology for them, as I also do not ask you to apologize for the bad apple teachers.

Note that I’ve not shown any examples of administrative issues, and I’m not going to here.

The point I’m trying to make is that on each side we have our struggle, our story, our truth.  Does that make one side more valuable than the other?


Does that make one side more right than the other?


As teachers it is hard for you to cross the chasm to the parent side, unless you truly wear both hats, meaning that of teacher and parent advocate.

For parents it is the same.

Two sides. 

Same coin.

But empathy and understanding is a two-way street, and the sad truth is, when one is in pain, it is almost impossible to see the pain of another, much less understand it.

If we are to cross the chasm to each other, both sides have to try.  This isn’t a battle where parents can bring in the teachers or vice versa, but teachers and parents have to have to find a way to bridge the gap to each other and be allies for change. 

Change cannot be one-sided, and to instill real and lasting change, one side cannot carry the truth of both. 

Parents cannot carry the burden of their children’s denial and the failure of the educational establishment to educate them, and teacher rights too. 

Teachers cannot carry the burden of a failed educational system, the necessity for change, and the denial of an education to millions who learn differently.

That’s asking too much on both sides.

But together…imagine what we can do.

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From my vantage point on my side of the chasm, those of us who advocate know that the non-bad apple teachers are not to blame.  We really and truly do.  We, as advocates, rage from time to time against the establishment, and we don’t know how to keep you from taking our rage personally, but the fact is our rage is justified and it must be shared, as is the rage you feel about the injustices teachers face as well.

I’ve used harsh words here in this blog, and again I’ve taken abuse for those harsh words, but when my child is being failed and abused by the system despite good and caring teachers coming and going in his life, am I just to sit quietly? 

The fact is that my choice of language cannot suit everyone, and to ask me to try to suit everyone denies my own voice and experience, the voice and experience of my child, and takes the teeth out of the parent advocacy movement because I won’t be the only one silenced.

Teachers are victims of the system as much as our children are, but again, parents cannot carry the truth of both, and cannot be expected to be the voice for both.

While the culture of education demands the silence and complete subservience of its teachers, and while teachers refuse to speak up and demand change from the system that treats them so badly, that system will continue to perpetuate and thrive. 

Academia should not be about silence, control, or even politics.  Academia should be about education for all.

Are there simple answers? 


Do I have solutions? 


We are all victims here.  I cannot get the school to teach my child how he learns to his true ability, and you cannot raise your voice for change.  We should be standing and fighting together, but while teachers cannot carry the parent advocacy movement, parents cannot carry the teacher movement.

We need to find a way to cross the chasm to each other.

If you have solutions, I’m listening….

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One comment on “Empathy and Understanding is a Two-Way Street

  1. Dawn Miller says:


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