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11 July 2016
Imagine this: You are 15 years old again. You’re dressed in your school uniform; crisp white shoes; waiting for the school bus. You carry your bag pack and happily walk to class. It’s going to be a great day at school. First class of the day - quail egg breeding. The next class is mushroom plantation. After recess, you have to finish your Tilapia breeding project. Sounds fun? That is a typical school day for a special needs student. Compared to your regular school, the school curriculum for special needs students are different. Instead of the pursuit of straight As, these students go to school to develop self-sustaining life skills that will help them function in mainstream society.
“It is a very challenging job,” Tan Meng Wei, a Malaysian special needs teacher of 12 years admits. “Not many teachers are willing nor capable of handling children with special needs.” Affectionately known by his students as Cikgu Tan, the 37-year-old teaches Living Skills (banana plantation, quail rearing, and sewing projects) besides academic subjects like Music, Mathematics, English and Bahasa Melayu. The typical classroom for Cikgu Tan comprises students of different physical or mental disability. Some has cerebral palsy, some are wheelchair-bound, others may have autism, down syndrome, dyslexia, ADHD and other cognitive impairment. Every day he juggles students with varying levels of information processing and retention. No two students in a classroom is the same. Ellen Werther, a Masters graduate in Special Education explains that even two students, both with the same Autism diagnosis, will have learning differences and individualised needs. “You really have to know your students individually.” “The first hurdle is to figure out what each student’s limitations are,” Micheal Henessy, a former one-on-one aide with special needs kids says. Before you can teach them anything, you have to ensure their efforts will be productive in some way. That includes evaluating how the disability affects each student’s level of learning; whether the student is a verbal, physical, or visual learner; the best way to communicate with them and the best way for them to communicate with you. It is an understatement to say that special needs education is a different ball game all together. In fact, regular teaching methods do not work. “Our main aim in special education is to train special needs students to be independent by teaching them some useful living skills. As for the regular students, we focus on their academics,” Cikgu Tan explains why workshops are a core component in his classes. According to special education teacher Kelly Miller, these students often have trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. It is an art that requires patience for both student and teacher. A lot of patience. Hennessy says it would take months or years to teach a special needs student something that would take regular students mere days. It is frustrating as well. Even with constant reminding or reteaching, there is no guarantee that the lessons will stick with the student. Perhaps the biggest challenge these teachers face is death. David Stewart, an Australian special needs teacher, voices his biggest frustration. “I taught in a school for physically-disabled kids for seven years and we would normally lose a student every few months. I've had to sit groups of kids down on countless occasions and tell them that someone they knew well didn't survive the weekend. The worst thing is the look on their faces when you gather them. They knew what was going to happen. You could see them thinking ‘Who was it this time?’. The mark of a good special needs teacher is not just patience, energy, care, nor creative thinking. It is one who focuses on the students ability instead of their disabling limitations, Amy Weinstein Montouri, a former aide for autistic children opines. Sometimes, the problem isn’t within the teacher but within society. Regardless of a teacher’s encouragement, the negative and limiting attitudes of society plays a big role disillusioning students into thinking they are failures. “People often define special needs kids by what they cannot do, not what they can do,” Steward says. Werther agrees, “students with learning disabilities are often seen as lacking intelligence. They are, however, very intelligent. They just can’t read or focus or process as effectively.” As a result, students lose self-respect.
Another outside factor is the lack of resources. Often, schools are not well-equipped to accommodate every student. Cikgu Tan cited an example where his school’s Computer Classrooms are located on the third floor. Students with cerebral palsy and those who are wheelchair-bound are forced to take their computer lessons separately from the rest of their classmates. Already a marginalised section of society, these unfortunate students had to be further isolated from their peers. No student should ever feel left out. Thankfully, crowdfunding platforms like 100% Project are finding ways to help special needs students receive equal learning opportunities. 100% Project’s solution for Cikgu Tans’ concern is to convert two shipping containers into Computer Classrooms that can be located at the ground floor. With the help of crowdbacking platform webe community, they were able to unlock RM100,000 funding to built two Container Classrooms for Cikgu Tan’s students. The money will ensure the Container Classrooms are equipped with a projector, 20 special needs-friendly laptops, WiFi and air-conditioning. Both Container Classrooms will also have a wheelchair ramp and wheelchair-friendly electrical outlet plugs. It’s acts of kindness like this that gives Cikgu Tan and his peers the tools they need to help their students succeed. “Most of my special needs students are from very poor families, and some are even orphans. Being poor means that most of them lack opportunities to succeed. I believe they can perform as well as regular students, all they need is the right kind of education and opportunities. Their lives can be transformed for the better.” However, Cikgu Tan remains realistic. These teachers know that most of their students will not excel academically, yet they continue to emphasise the importance of education and knowledge. At the end of the day, a special needs teacher’s job is done not when a student scores straight As, but when they graduate with the ability to stand of their own two feet and be contributing members of society. In his quail breeding class, Cikgu Tan encourages his students to sell quail eggs to restaurants in the community. Students even learn how to keep a ledger and communicate with the restaurants on orders. Cikgu Tan beams with pride as he reveals that one of his students went on to set up his own quail farm with the family. “Teaching special needs students can be very challenging. Sometimes, I feel close to quitting. What keeps me going is knowing that my students need their teachers and that there are many out there who support what we do,” Cikgu Tan thanks the many Malaysians who have pledged for the Classroom Container project on webe community. As challenging as it is a job, it is one that comes with full of rewards. “Every student is special in their own way, and you just need to find that little nugget of special in them,” Stewart says. Cikgu Tan agrees “I feel great each time there is a tiny improvement in my students’ reading, writing, counting and communication.” He knows how important his role in life is when he meets a former student who has gone on to get married, set up a family, and have a stable job. “They can live normal life just like us,” Cikgu Tan says. All it takes is that one teacher who would never give up on them. Webe community is a crowdbacking platform where we give Malaysians the funding they need to create a positive social impact in Malaysia. Download the webe community app now to see and support projects that you believe in. All interviews besides Cikgu Tan were adopted from Quora: quora.com/Teachers-How-difficult-is-it-teaching-children-who-have-special-needs/
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