I win. You lose.

In October 2014 my beloved Republic of Ireland secured a dramatic away draw against Germany in a European Championship football qualifying match. The Irish Times amusingly reported at the time of a “Stunning and comprehensive 1-1 victory for Ireland”.

Memories of this game and the subsequent reporting ran through my mind this afternoon whilst at the Education Rights Alliance (@ERA_tweets) unconference on inclusion. I was listening to a very engaging and persuasive talk by Nick Hodge (@goodchap62) and Katherine Runswick-Cole (@k_runswick_cole) on conversations between parents and professionals. They talked of the tensions that can sometimes arise, the reluctance of either or both party to say what they really think and of the danger of reading too much into another’s words.

Some of the examples were overt. When a Headteacher suggests that the school down the road “does autism/challenging behaviour/Down syndrome better than we do” the message is not a subtle one. When a parent offers up a book on Prader-Willi syndrome to the class teacher and suggests they read it, the teacher may consider that an attack on their professional knowledge. The parent may well be genuine in their attempt to help the teacher further their understanding. After all, how many mainstream colleagues have worked with a child with a rare syndrome before? Few. It could be, too, that the parent is saying in a roundabout way that the teacher hasn’t been listening to the parent’s advice for the past two years. The book is the last resort – “Read that if you won’t listen to me.”

If you end up teaching my daughter this is likely to happen to you. You will be given an explanation about persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous, how it affects my daughter and the minor modifications you’d need to make to ensure she wasn’t significantly disadvantaged. I have no expectation that any teacher would know about PHPV and would approach this in the spirit of helping both my daughter and the teacher, but I can see how the teacher may well become defensive or dislike the sense that they are being told how to do their job.

It can feel like a win-lose situation. If you want to win then I have to lose, and I don’t like losing. Those of us who work with students with rather more extreme behavioural needs try to avoid zero sum situations as losing, failure or loss of face are experiences some students will go to great lengths to avoid. Katherine and Nick reminded me once again that we need to acknowledge the experiences, struggles and battles that many parents have been through to get to that point. They are, to quote one parent from the unconference, “exhausted” by the journey and the sense that they are a lone voice, a fatigued but valiant advocate for their child.

In the handover period prior to taking up the headship at the school I serve I was warned by the incumbent about two sets of parents. Their children were due to start in September and the parents were to be watched like a hawk. Sure enough, meetings were requested soon after both children started. Both sets of parents had clearly been through very difficult times to battle for the basic entitlement for their children in primary school. They simply wanted what was best for their children and had to resort to advocating more strongly than should be necessary. In their shoes I would have done exactly the same thing.

Far from taking an adversarial approach to the school, I found them warm and engaging, knowledgeable and altruistic. Today they are the joint Vice-Chairs on our governing body and two of the strongest advocates for our school as a whole. They should be on commission as their recommendation has resulted in a number of other children coming to our school and for that we are eternally grateful. Our school is a much better place for having them around.

1-1 score draw. A stunning and comprehensive victory for all.


4 thoughts on “I win. You lose.

  1. Communication is key. And yet so difficult to get right, on both sides. I don’t believe that anybody sets out wanting the battle; it’s even possible that everyone just wants what is best for the child, but other issues get in the way of that and are often not communicated very well. It’s a minefield. As a parent we may be stressed by lack of sleep or by trying to gather enough information to make sure meetings about our children with additional needs run smoothly; as teachers I’m guessing you may be stressed by lack of funds or other pressures from above. Nobody understands the whole story unless it is spelled out for them. We may not like the truth of the whole story if it is explained, but at least it’s then out in the open and we can find real possible solutions. Great to meet you today and to have it reinforced that you are one of the good guys; just wish there were more like you!

    • Quite right, Steph. Heels dug in, arms crossed, brow furrowed, lips pursed, eyebrows raised can be the typical body language in those meetings.
      Acknowledgement of feelings, prior experiences and respective expertise is the minimum if this is to work.
      Thanks again.

  2. Interestingly, in my experience, every class teacher in the 5 years my daughter has been at her (mainstream) school has been eager to accept any information I could offer about her needs specifically and her conditions generally. Many other practitioners have fallen into the trap of telling us what we/she needs to do all the while asserting their professional knowledge ‘out trumps’ our own comprehensive & very often hard won understanding of our child. Those are the interactions that require considerable effort to arrive at a win win – and even if you are adept at giving difficult feedback usefully and taking difficult feedback on the chin, it’s effort nonetheless. But striving for the win win is vital given, as you point out, our CYPs frequent difficulty in the face of win lose situations and their all too frequent experience of being on the losing end.

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