As the school year comes to an end, I can’t help but feel as though any gift I give my son’s preschool teacher will be insufficient. How do you thank someone who has worked so hard to help your little one navigate their first year of school? Is a cutesy little “World’s Best Teacher” mug really going to deliver the message I want this woman to receive?
On top of protecting, enriching, educating, molding, and growing my son for the past year, she’s loved him, as well. Maybe she hasn’t loved him as much as I do, but she has loved him AS I do. So, yeah. I’m stressed when as I search for a gift idea for the end of the year. I’m stressed because nothing could show the appreciation I have for my son’s preschool teacher. Nothing can compare to the gift she’s given my family this year.
I assume that being a preschool teacher is complicated. For many kids, it’s their first time leaving the comfort of their Mom and Dad. The environment is new. The people are new. The experience is just different than anything they’ve encountered thus far.
And here is this one person at the center of this new, overwhelming, and different experience-their preschool teacher. The person in charge of all these little people. The one whose job it is to comfort these crying children. Children whose tears soak their cheeks as they try to understand why their Mom or Dad just dropped them off and left them in a place they’ve never seen before. Children burdened with confusion as they wonder if their Mom and Dad will ever come back.
Comforting them at drop off is only the beginning of the mountain that preschool teachers seem to climb every day. Preschool age is an interesting age, to say the least. Some kids are working out the kinks of their potty-training journey. Others are struggling to communicate their thoughts and emotions properly. Other are just plain petrified. They never sit still. They’re constantly asking questions. They leave a mess everywhere they go.
And let’s not forget the fact that there are yet to be worried about what others think about them. Therefore, they think nothing of throwing themselves on the floor and going into a complete meltdown over the fact that the big red dog in the book is named Clifford when they wanted it to be Buddy. Safe to say…it takes a special group of people to volunteer to enter a profession of educating these young minds.
But, they exist. And they show up. And they continue to show up day after day, week after week, month after month, for the entire school year. Their careers are clearly driven by an intense passion and love for what they do.
Consequently, sometimes just by showing up, they make a difference in the lives of our children. They protect them. They educate them. They grow them. They cheer for them in their accomplishments and help them through their failures. They assist them in overcoming frustration, embarrassment, disappointment, and loss. They encourage them when they struggle and display their pride in the success they find through those challenges. They teach them to be humble in their victories while urging them to keep fighting to be their best.
If you’re really lucky, your kid will get a teacher whose lesson goes beyond the classroom and whose teachings make a lasting impact on their life. One whose hand has a specific role in molding them into the adults they will eventually become. A teacher whose work will shape their minds in a way that allows them to reach their full potential. One whose reassurance, patience, and belief in your child will be the driving force they need to achieve amazing accomplishments.
Looking back, I can think of a few teachers who impacted my life tremendously. Ones who always went the extra mile to support me. Ones who never failed to help me get back on my feet when I had fallen. Ones who pushed me to become a better version of myself by challenging me through a unique blend of higher expectations and satisfied praise.
I was blessed to have teachers who forced me to fail so I could see myself try again. As I grew, it was the teachers I thought were the worst that lead me to be my best. And it was the teachers whose relationship went beyond the classroom that taught me the life lessons I’ve used to survive in the real world. They taught me that I could do anything I put my mind to, and because of them, I have.
Although teachers might not be your favorite people when you are a child, you can understand the true impact of their work when you have children of your own. As a parent, when you find a teacher you trust to keep your child safe AND lead them on the right path towards their future, I think you’ve struck gold.
My son’s preschool experience has been unique because my son has special needs. Being his teacher is a little more complicated than being the teacher of a child who doesn’t face the number of challenges he struggles with. That’s why finding the perfect gift to end the year has even more meaning to me. Because this person is not only teaching my child every day, she is helping him overcome unique obstacles that most kids don’t face. In fact, she has probably helped him face challenges she had no skills with or expertise in.
At the start of school, we met with her to tell her about our son. I explained his disabilities. I talked about the brain surgery that helped him survive a pediatric brain tumor at five-months-old. I talked about the setbacks he’s experienced from the stroke he survived during that brain surgery. I detailed the warning signs, triggers, and consequences of the seizures he has from the epilepsy he fights. I spelled out the complexity of his brain, the main muscle he would be using in his time with her. And I was surprised with her reaction. Because she didn’t appear to be shocked or surprised like most people do when I tell his story. I was surprised that she was calm and immediately displayed a “we will do it” mentality in response to all she had just heard.
I ended the conversation with a special request. I said, “It’s ok to have high expectations of my son. Despite his disability, he is extremely strong. But, he has learned how to work the adults in his life into giving him exactly what he wants, and letting him out of exactly what he doesn’t want to do, because of all he’s been through. While he deserves and needs a certain degree of understanding and help, I don’t want him to use his medical journey as a crutch. I need you to help me teach him that he CAN do anything; despite all he’s been through. I need you to help me teach him that if he can’t, at least he tried.”
As I drove away from his school, I thought of the immensity of the favor I had just asked. I, myself, had struggled daily to find a balance between understanding and expectation. I found that creating a balance between knowing when to push and knowing when to pull back was one of the most difficult tasks I’ve faced as a Mom. Yet, here I was placing this burden on his preschool teacher on the first day we met. I moved past those feelings as I reminded myself the promise I made to always put it all on the table for my son’s sake rather than hold back for myself or others sake. She might not rise to my request but at least I asked.
As I dropped him at his first day of school, I thought leaving him in this new environment would be absolutely terrifying. While I can’t say I didn’t worry about him on most days, I did much better than I thought I would. And every time I thought about my son sitting in a classroom learning, I also thought about the time I was told he might not ever be able to walk or talk. Those memories of sleepless nights worrying if he would ever live a normal existence helped me to put aside my what ifs when I dropped him off at school. A simple nod from his preschool teacher, as she warmly welcomed him into the classroom with a smile and an excited good morning, was all the reassurance I needed to know that he was in the right hands.
As the year ends, I’m overcome with emotions. Last week his backpack was filled with the clothes I sent him to school with back in September. I giggled as I looked at the size 2T t-shirt that would never his 4T size today. My laughter turned to tears. I cried. I cried with joy at how far he’s come since he went off to preschool nine months ago. I cried thinking of the bittersweet moments that occurred throughout the year as we watched him go from a toddler to a little boy. I cried thinking about how hard it was to get through some of those days. I cried because despite how hard it was, we did it. Then I smiled.
I smiled because of how lucky we are that my son’s preschool teacher joined his team. The team of caregivers, medical professionals, coaches, therapists, supporters, friends, and family that help him on his interesting path through life. His preschool teacher had a special role. His teacher gave him the comfort he needed to grow without me. She had the skills to teach him what he needs to jump to the next milestones of his life. She offered the patience necessary to help him find success in the first year of his school career. Through her instruction, my son grew leaps and bounds. His teacher showed up every day for all her students, consistently. And, as if all of this isn’t enough for the yearly salary I’m sure doesn’t nearly meet her work efforts, she did more for my son.
One of the greatest lessons my son learned in preschool came from the moments his teacher empowered him in his times of weakness. Because of his epilepsy, he has been restricted from using the slide during playtime at school. His “feet on the ground” restriction had gotten the best of him on a day when he struggled to understand why all his friends could do something he wasn’t allowed to do. Even our “because you’re a superhero” explanation wouldn’t help. In his most frustrating moments, although he might not have understood his restrictions, she helped him to accept them. She helped him to move past them. And she didn’t stop there.
As my son faced the possibility of another restriction in the same week as that difficult day, it was her extra effort that further empowered him. She talked to me at pickup about his difficult experience in the playground, then she mentioned the big school concert that was to occur later in the week. His school had won a statewide contest that entitled the students to a private concert by award-winning artist, Andy Grammar.
Because of his recent sensitivity to noise, and the fact that it potentially triggered his seizures, I had been asked if he should sit in a separate room and watch the concert live on the computer. While I always put my son’s medical restrictions first, I couldn’t stomach the idea of him sitting in a separate room while his entire school was enjoying a treat that all the students collectively earned. I couldn’t accept the vision of him secluded when it hadn’t been determined whether or not noise even was a trigger for his seizures.
My son’s teacher supported my decision to have him go to the concert. She supported it without hesitation. She didn’t only support me, she reassured me by saying she would keep him close to her. This helped ease my mind as I struggled with whether I was making the right decision. The unpredictability of epilepsy often causes me to struggle internally as I wonder whether my decision will lead to a medical emergency. The mom guilt is real when trying to protect your epilepsy warrior while simultaneously allowing them to spread their wings.
On that day in particular, I know his teacher had all the other students to worry about, but it was her willingness to give it a TRY anyways that moved me. As I had asked her earlier in the year, “I need you to help teach him that he CAN do anything; despite all he’s been through. And if he can’t, at least he tried.”
I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched the Facebook Live video of that concert. There he was! My son! He was enjoying the concert with all his other friends. He was safely seated on his preschool teacher’s lap with his ears somewhat covered and a beaming smile on his face. I think that’s where the pressure I’ve faced with finding the perfect gift comes from. From the fact that this woman, this teacher, has done everything a person in her profession “needs” to do to perform their job well. From the fact that she did everything and so much more.
She lovingly provided my son the understanding, patience, and comfort he needed to give him the confidence to TRY to do things that might not go as planned. And through her lack of fear in the complexity of his condition, or maybe a willingness to try despite that fear, she taught my son that he CAN. He CAN do anything; despite all he’s been through. He CAN and he WILL.
I believe it’s the lessons that aren’t covered in text books that teach us the most in life. As we end the year, I believe my son’s preschool teacher provided him with one of these lessons. A lesson that will positively impact him for a lifetime. A lesson he will refer back to as he grows. One that will remind him he can do anything in moments when he doesn’t even want to try.
As the year comes to an end, I’m stuck. How do you find the right way to thank someone who has done THAT for your child? How do you find a gift that adequately represents your appreciation for enriching your child’s life with all of THAT? Even the nicest “Teachers Make a Difference” plaque can’t begin to scratch the surface.
I’m confident the lessons my son learned in Room 1 will lead him to do great things throughout his life. When he does, I hope to remind him of the experiences we had during his first year of school. I’ll tell him about the preschool teacher whose impact ran so deep that I struggled to find the right gift to show her our appreciation.
Someday this little boy will be a grown man. He’ll grow from that toddler who struggled with his restrictions to this little boy who accepted them and moved on. He’ll grow from this little boy who worked through confusion and frustration to a grown man who used his failures to find success.
Some day my baby will be a man. I’ll cherish the memories of a little boy who grew through his preschool teacher’s willingness to help him TRY. I’ll remember the struggling preschooler who was taught to never give up so that he CAN; despite all he’s been through. I’ll smile as I recall the boy who took his preschool teacher’s lesson plan on CAN and DID.
No, I can’t find the right gift for his teacher. But, someday my son will be a grown man who holds this gift I’ve been searching so hard to find. One that won’t magically appear on the end of the school year teacher display at The Paper Store. I’ll encourage that man to find a way to contact his first school teacher. Maybe I’ll even find the contact for him. And I think when he reminds her of the lessons she taught him, she’ll get her proper thank you. He’ll find her perfect gift in showing her just how far her influence went. He’ll deliver the message I wanted her to receive when he shows her just how deep of an impact she made when she pushed a little boy to TRY so he could find out that he CAN.