Instead of reading case studies, these preservice students worked with volunteer parents of students with disabilities to learn how to build productive relationships with students’ families.

Many Hollywood films show the struggles of students with disabilities. More often than not, the struggle involves a clash between family and school. For example, in “The Miracle Worker,” Anne Bancroft as teacher Annie Sullivan removes Helen Keller from her family to “keep her to what she’s learned.” At one point, Annie plays tug-of-war, literally, with Helen’s mother, using Helen as the rope. Or, think about Cher in “Mask,” where she plays the big-haired motorcycle mother and in-your-face advocate for her facially disfigured son. Cher takes on both clueless school people and insensitive doctors in the first 20 minutes of the movie. Even in “Forrest Gump,” Sally Field, as Forrest’s mom, trades sexual favors with a school administrator to get Forrest an inclusive placement. Do the movies exaggerate the tension between parents and school, or have they exposed an all-too-familiar failure to communicate?

Real life shows that the movies have some of it right. According to MetLife’s 2005 Survey of the American Teacher, new teachers often consider working with parents to be their biggest challenge. Both new and veteran teachers hear negative comments about difficult parents in teachers’ lounges. But for families of children in special education, school procedures and paperwork often end with families on the defensive and frequent conflicts with school officials. In a 2005 Time magazine article by Nancy Gibbs, Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot says, “Everyone says that parent-teacher conferences should be pleasant, civilized, a kind of dialogue where parents and teachers build alliances, but what most teachers feel, and certainly what most parents feel, is anxiety, panic and vulnerability.”

Forging partnerships

To create better parent-teacher relations, teacher candidates at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., are forging new partnerships to tame their fears about working with families. In the semester right before they do their student teaching, teacher candidates take a preservice course involving several families trained by The Advocacy Center, a local nonprofit disability advocacy organization.

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