I have been a parent for almost 21 years. And, up to now my sons have always attended the school where I was a principal or the district where I was a staff member. With our recent move, I am experiencing what it’s like to be on the outside of my son’s school experience. And, I can barely see in. Literally. Because of the tight (and necessary) security measures, when I go to the school office, I can only catch a little glimpse what is happening in the school through small windows.
We chose our son’s school district carefully, based on what I know about school ratings and communities and based on the diversity and school experience he was looking for. And, from what I know so far, we chose pretty well. He attends a good school in a good district. That is a high compliment because I am watching closely, looking for affirmation that he is safe, known and appreciated for who he is, and that he is learning. For the most part, the only data I have is from him–not just what he says about school, but how he says it. I watch the look on his face as he exits the car when I drop him off. I study his demeanor when he walks in the door after taking the bus home. I observe his energy and attitude toward school. He is fifteen, so he tells me he hates school, but I can tell in other ways that he is doing okay.
Fast forward to one month into the school year and on the Thursday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, we received this email:
Your child DOES NOT have a current shot record. They may NOT return to school on 9/6/22. Please contact the school at 867-5309 if you have any questions.
I was working in California when we got that email. My stomach dropped and I thought, “Oh poop (not quite that word), did I drop the ball with this?!? How am I going to get it fixed when I am traveling home tomorrow and it’s a holiday weekend?”
When Tyson and I finally moved to join Jim in Georgia this past summer, we made an appointment to talk with a school counselor to select his classes. During that visit we learned that he needed a health screening and that his vaccination records needed to be transferred to the Georgia system. I got to work trying to set him up with a doctor and make an appointment as quickly as possible because he needed these things by the beginning of September. It is not easy to find a doctor, y’all! I called at least five physician offices before finding a doctor who would both take our insurance and was accepting new patients. My persistence paid off and we got him an appointment mid-August.
We left the appointment with the health screening information school needed. We also gave the doctor information to get Tyson’s vaccination records transferred over. I scanned the health screener and emailed it to the school office and I didn’t think about it for the next couple weeks. Until we got the email above. Oh crap.
I started connecting with Tyson’s doctor between flights on my way home from California the day after we got the “may NOT return” email. His new doctor never got the records from Tyson’s old doctor, so they would fax the request again. I knew then that he would miss at least one day of school. After the holiday weekend, I continued connecting with the new doctor’s office and our old doctor. You know how the story goes…they didn’t receive the fax, it was the wrong paperwork, we cannot email you the records but we can snail mail them, etc. One obstacle after another.
After Tyson was home the second day (living his best life, by the way), I contacted the school principal to ask for his help. He responded quickly and we connected the morning of the third day Tyson was home. The principal explained that the lack of timely communication was due to the fact that the health department usually contacts families about vaccination requirements and because we are new to the state, they don’t have record of us yet. He told us that I could contact the health department and make an appointment to get the records transferred over. If I made an appointment sometime in September, Tyson could come back to school the next day. Guess what? I called the health department and was told they only take walk-ins for transferring shot records. I begged the woman to just make an appointment for us and she would not. One obstacle after another.
In the meantime, I contacted our new doctor’s office again to see if they were having any luck and JACKPOT! They had the records and were getting them into the Georgia system. They would call me when they were ready. I got a call that afternoon that the records had transferred and that Tyson needed one shot. I interrupted his macaroni-and-cheese cooking session to rush him into the car to head to the doctor’s office.
While we were in the car on our way, I got a phone call from a local number. I answered it, saying, “Hello, this is Allyson.”
The woman said something close to this, “Hello, this is __________ from the high school. I am calling because you had 30 days to get Tyson’s shot records transferred over to the Georgia system and time’s up.”
What?!? Did you not think I was already aware of that with my son home from school for the past three days?!?
Tears immediately started streaming down my face as I listened to her words. I was too choked up to talk and I didn’t want to say what I was thinking because that would be very rude. So, I told her that I had been in contact with the principal, that I am on the way to the doctor to resolve the issue, and she can ask the principal if she needs more information. The very last thing I needed right then was that phone call. My mom guilt was at an all-time high. I want to LOVE Tyson’s school and feel like they support us and that we are a team. I seriously could not stop the tears.
Tyson was not used to seeing me so sad, so he turned up the charm and support. He apologized for being upset about being whisked away from his yummy lunch to go get a shot. He even gave me a hug.
I was afraid that the tears wouldn’t stop as we walked into the doctor’s office, but they were so kind and took care of us right away. I was grateful for their grace and their help.
But the tears started back up on our drive home. Tyson was really confused. I was too. Why was I sad to my core about this situation, especially now that it was resolved?
After some thought, I figured it out.
That phone call.
I am an educator, I know the system. I have privilege and access. But what about those families who don’t? How do they navigate these challenges and obstacles? Do they feel like the schools are partnering with them or judging them? And then we complain that families are not supportive?
I write this story not to throw shade or cast blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with the information they have. I write this story to hopefully give some perspective on the challenges our families face. Looking back on my situation, here are three action steps that may have helped our family.
1. Make sure email communication includes an element of partnership. What if the email the school sent us said something like this:
We were notified by the health department that your child does not have a current shot record. Typically the health department notifies families, but they asked us to let you know that your child may not return to school on 9/6/22. We know how important it is that your child be in school, and it is important to us too. If you have questions or need help, please contact the school at 867-5309.
First of all, let’s eliminate using all caps in our emails. Please. To the recipient it feels like we are being screamed at and that is not how we want families to feel. In this revised email, what changes do you see? How does it feel? It feels more like partnering, doesn’t it? It feels like Tyson is a valued part of their school community. Just few extra words can make all the difference.
2. Let grace and empathy lead the way. Life is challenging for educators. Life is challenging for students. Life is challenging for families. Let’s give grace and assume people are doing the best they can. I wonder if I would have burst into tears if the phone call I received started like this, “Hello, this is __________ from Tyson’s high school. I am so sorry that he is out of school right now. I wanted to check in to see what help I can provide to get him back into school?”
The reality is that there is always more to someone’s story than what meets the eye. Give the same grace you’d like to receive when you are going through a challenge. Here is a pro-tip: As you are about to make that phone call or type that email, take a deep breath, smile, and assume the family needs grace. Then say hello or type that first line.
3. Communicate. Communicate. Then communicate some more. In our case, we fell into a loophole with communication, so there is no one to blame and we are not about judgement anyway. Nowadays, there are many means of quick and easy communication at our fingertips, so let’s use them to support families and to tell the story of our amazing schools. Please don’t let online gradebooks and the stories teenagers tell be the only information families receive. Tell them about the exciting learning, give them lots of reminders about requirements in case they get busy and forget about something, and let them know you value their kids. Model the partnership you want to receive from families.
Tyson is back in school today. I am not crying anymore. I am assuming that the future is bright in our partnership with Tyson’s school because I know it is full of caring staff. All is good with the Apsey family. Is the same for all of our families? Can we do a better job to be the partner our families deserve? I know I had room for improvement as a principal.
What tips would you add to this list? Share your ideas in the comments or tag me on social media using @AllysonApsey. We are so much better together!