This is the twelfth part of my Reflection Series for 2017 – a self-reflection of my teaching this year.
This article discusses my experiences working with students with disabilities. Please forgive me if any of it comes across in a non-politically-correct way – I haven’t written about this topic before so it’s a new experience for me! If I have written anything in an offensive way, please get in contact so I can correct it.
What was the most valuable thing you learned this year?
When I returned to my old school at the beginning of term 2, I took over the timetable of another teacher who was moving into the special education section of our school (for the purposes of this article I’ll refer to this as the SEC – Special Education Centre; I know they are known under many names!). She had a particular interest in working with those students, and had set up her year 10 science class to include as many students from the SEC as possible.
When I took over her timetable, I also took over that class. It was a mix of students with and without disabilities, and those disabilities included a wide range of physical, intellectual, and emotional.
I had never worked with students with significant disabilities before. I had worked with the occasional ADHD, mild learning difficulties, etc; but this class was different. I now had two students in wheelchairs, a number with significant learning difficulties (to the point of working at a grade level as low as grade 4), and a number with social and/or emotional concerns as well. Some students were a mix of all of these things.
At first I was quite apprehensive – having never done anything like this before, I was unsure what to expect and how to proceed. I had taught low-level science classes before, and found that I usually enjoyed teaching them the most, but I didn’t know how different this would be. I also hadn’t dealt with physical disabilities in a lab setting before, and that worried me even more.
Luckily for me I had the most amazing co-teacher! We had started at the school at the same time and got along really well, but had never really worked together (me as a math/science teacher, and her in the SEC). I knew I could work well with her though, so it lightened my anxiety significantly.
Interactions and Rapports
I know that there is no reason to treat them any differently to students who don’t have disabilities, but it’s easier said than done when you’ve never personally known, let alone taught, people who do have them. I’m being completely honest and open here, so hopefully you don’t think poorly of me for my initial anxiety!
Learning how to interact with these students was one side of my most valuable thing I learned this year.
I went in treating them exactly the same as all of my previous students, as I knew if I let any of my anxiety show through it would have a negative impact on the whole class. I think they responded pretty well to that, and their previous teacher had spoken to them about the fact that she wasn’t going to leave the class until she knew the school had a good enough replacement, and that I was certainly good enough. Having her backing, along with the backing of the co-teacher, surely smoothed things along for me.
In the class were a few students who I had taught before, and they were largely happy to have me back. One or two were less enthused, mostly because they would often get in trouble in my classes in the past. I made sure to cultivate good rapports with all of the students – picking up where we’d left off with the ones I’d had on side previously, and using that as a lever for the students I hadn’t taught before.
Because there were students with significant emotional and social concerns, I had to tread very carefully initially. At least until I got to know them a bit better, I didn’t want to risk turning them away from me simply because I didn’t understand them or their problems. I made sure to talk to other teachers who had good rapports with them to pick up tips and avoid mistakes.
By the end of the year I think I had everyone on side. It’s hard to know for sure with teenagers. I know they were all excited by my pregnancy, and sad/angry I wouldn’t be returning in 2018.
Adapting the content to a much lower level than I was used to was certainly a big learning curve. I am so grateful to the co-teacher for her assistance in this regard – she worked very closely with the students who were at a lower level; re-explaining things when I was still too complex, re-writing assessment items to suit their abilities and needs, suggesting ways to present content. I still don’t think I did a good enough job, but learning from her was invaluable.
The teacher aides who helped in the classroom were every bit as valuable as they could possibly be. They sat with the students who needed the most help, worked through their personality kinks, helped out with behaviour management, etc. I truly don’t think they get paid enough for the incredible work they do!
I tried to inject humour and silliness into my lessons, knowing that it is always appreciated by students – particularly those who are going through a rough patch (like those students with emotional problems at the time). I spent hours searching YouTube for the right level of videos to play that showed the content in an amusing way, and put in as many pictures of the concepts as possible (also helps lower level students a lot!). Where applicable, I was even able to include images/videos of people in wheelchairs – but I made sure to do this subtly, and never explicitly discuss the fact that the image was there, in case those students felt singled out.
Adapting our lab experiments to be inclusive of the students in wheelchairs was actually easier than I had anticipated. Not too many changes were needed, and I tried to make the activities group-work where possible so that there was always someone to help out if needed. The other students in the class were very good at helping those students, but they were also very good at standing back and letting them have a go themselves. They even actively encouraged their participation, which was lovely to see!
Having spent the better part of a year working with a wider variety of students, I really feel like my confidence and ability have increased. My initial anxieties were calmed with time and the assistance of the co-teacher, teacher aides, and the students themselves.
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.