“Just a mom.” “Just a military spouse.” “You don’t understand how hard it is to change.” Those were the dismissive statements I heard many years ago from education leaders when I started on a mission to right a wrong for our military children in special education.

On Wednesday Feb. 17, I was invited to meet with the first lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, as a representative of Partners in PROMISE in a roundtable discussion with five other military child education leaders. I had met Dr. Biden last year during her visit to Norfolk, Virginia, at a veteran and military spouse event. But, what happened when we started the listening panel shocked me. Not only did the first lady remember me, but in her opening remarks to the press, she mentioned me and our organization by name. She cited the good work we are doing in the military community for special education.

How on earth did I get here? I was given a shout out by the first lady of the United States.

A mother’s journey

Ensuring your children are afforded a federally mandated education is a full-time job. It affects the entire family. Education challenges for our children clearly impacts the military readiness of the service member. It impacts family wellness. Most importantly, it impacts the military child’s sense of self-worth and ability to be valuable members of society.

Partners in PROMISE was the only organization entirely staffed by active-duty military spouses invited to Dr. Biden’s Education Listening Panel. We were also the only military child education organization focused on special education. We represent military families, and relay the hard questions we hear from our community members. We dig deeper because our families want answers.

We are led by a strong team of special education advocates, a special education attorney, former EFMP staffers, special education teachers, researchers, project managers and journalists. Each of us has a different reason for serving but each inspiration is powerful and compelling. And within one year our passionate advocacy was invited to the White House.

And that is exactly what Dr. Biden stated in her opening remarks. A lot of great work and support has happened for the education of our military children during the previous Obama initiative, Joining Forces, and it will continue in the Biden administration.

The closed discussion began with the academic challenges that our military children faced prior to COVID, yet equally pressing were the socio-emotional impacts noted on our community during the pandemic. Despite being known as “resilient,” military children need more support and tools to address those long-lasting consequences from the interruptions to their education. Schools were praised for stepping up in the community by providing continued delivery of school lunches as well as teachers thinking out of the box in how they deliver education virtually to their students.

Although the concerns that were addressed are important and affect military children, there was an emphasis on the efforts taken by schools and teachers and the need to educate them. Educating educators is an initiative that can be implemented immediately versus the larger, long-term problem of how a military-style education affects our children. This is especially true of those exceptional children who are often missing from the conversation because the idea of correcting something as complicated as special education seems impossible. This sustained focus is harder to implement, but is the point of view of parents, who support their children for a lifetime not just for a few years.

The last part of the discussion reiterated something Partners in PROMISE has been saying for the past year: the quality of education directly impacts military readiness. Our special education families know this all too well. Many are forced to retire earlier than desired to help provide consistency for their families.

I see this invitation to speak with the first lady as an opportunity to show that military family representation is vital. When we ensure that our voices and solutions are heard we also equip our leaders to help close these education gaps.

As parents, our bandwidth for engaging may be less than normal right now, it is extremely important to seek out your local PTA, special education advisory council, state interstate compact council, MIC3, state and federal legislators about your current situation and if the current processes in place are not working, suggest solutions. It is often the “boots on the ground” answers that will drive change. That is how Partners in PROMISE started, by sharing our stories and solutions with those who had the power to do something about it. And today we are still doing that, although at an admittedly higher level.

And as I reflect upon this experience, it is hard to think of myself or any members of our team as “just a military spouse.” We earned a seat at the table. And we will not forget how we got here and the children that motivate us to lean in.

Michelle Norman, the 2020 Heroes at Home Military Spouse of the Year – Hampton Roads and the 2019 AFI Navy Spouse of the Year, is a Navy spouse of 25 years and mother of a 17-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and multiple other disabilities. After years of successfully advocating and winning multiple legal cases to ensure her daughter receives the minimum education required by law, she was contacted by multiple military families across the country dealing with similar problems in public schools. Realizing that so many children will benefit from her dedicated efforts, the Virginia Beach resident has become a passionate advocate for military children with special needs and their families. Norman and three military spouses founded Partners in PROMISE, an organization focused on educating, advising and advocating for exceptional military families and their education.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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