by Sipho Sibanda
My name is Sipho, and I am an Assistive Technology Advisor at Inclusive Solutions. I’m also a Special Needs Teacher and I will always be one at heart. I appreciate that I still get to work with teachers, and share some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from this role – knowledge that I wish I had had when I was teaching. All of the exposure I’ve had to a range of technologies, and my many interactions with different schools, different families, different individuals with unique needs would have been so helpful to know as a teacher. It is a privilege to now be able to share this knowledge with other teachers in the South African education system.
One common challenge all teachers encounter is having to work with learners with a range of disabilities, including learning, intellectual, physical and emotional difficulties. Learners in a single classroom may range from having mild or moderate disabilities, which might require the adaptation of lesson plans, to severe disabilities which may require assistance with everything from physical access to their work or even their ability to communicate.
Special education teachers are expected to meet the needs of each individual learner based on their Individual Education Plan (IEP) – meaning that we need to have formulated specialised instructional strategies and materials to reach every learner. This can be a very daunting task – especially in some of our large SA classes.
A day in the life of a Special education teacher is certainly eventful. My colleagues and I used to feel that we needed to be a multi-disciplinary team all on our own! In one day, we might have to be a Nurse, Social Worker, Occupational Therapist, Policewoman, Parent, or Manager…and of course a Teacher too. And that was before any lessons even began!
I have taught at public and private schools. I have taught at a school catering for people with mild intellectual disabilities, to severe intellectual disabilities and Autism. There are many challenges that teachers face – and my first challenge was me! I soon discovered that I was a barrier to teaching and learning in those settings. I was fresh from a mainstream school background and had never taught at a Special School. I remember the first day I stood in front of the class, not knowing where to begin. I had been handed over all the paperwork and the curriculum. I knew that I had to do things differently but I had no idea where to begin. It is out of necessity in SA that teachers who have little or no experience sometimes find themselves responsible for the education of children for whom they are not adequately prepared, and the learning curve is as steep for the teacher as it is for his or her pupils.
I actively tried to better myself, seeking knowledge on how I could reach my learners but resources were limited. What I thought might work was either not available or I realised I didn’t know to implement it. I realise now that teachers often work in isolation, scrambling to utilise the skills and experience they do have to achieve progress for their classes. What I know now is that I could have contacted neighbouring special schools and perhaps arranged to shadow one of the experienced teachers, and discussed more widely the challenges I faced. I have also learned that my experience wasn’t unique – many teachers feel isolated and overwhelmed, and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of running a complex class like mine.
I really struggled to plan lessons for my learners with different needs. I did not understand how to differentiate my lessons to accommodate every child. It seemed like an impossible task. I had to understand every child’s disability, know their strengths and match that to the curriculum to make sure that every learner was catered for.
I recall trying to plan for a writing lesson where I had learners at four different levels in one class! Some could write independently by copying from the board, others could only trace or join dots, while others could colour in a picture, and others were still learning to grip a pencil. A strategy I soon learned to use was to have my children sit in groups, according to their abilities. Each group would do their writing according to their strengths. Those who needed hand over hand would get individual attention and the more independent groups could support and encourage each other.
I now also recommend the use of desk dividers, which help learners to focus on their individual work if they struggle to concentrate whilst seated in groups. These dividers can also have all the instructions displayed on their surfaces, sequences and steps in the tasks presented in a way that the child understands, so that they have less need to interact with other learners during individual work time.
I also advise teachers now to use visual timetables and timers to teach learners how to manage themselves, to anticipate what is required of them and to help orientate those who like to know what to expect of their day. This is really helpful with big classes, where small interruptions can have a big impact on the flow of the lesson. If the learners are not yet literate, they can have their instructions in symbols in a schedule format with the timer to help them manage their time for the given task. All things I wish I had known then, and enthusiastically share with teachers I meet now!
Another challenge I learned to solve was the classroom layout. Many special education classes experience ‘behaviour challenges’. In some classes it creates chaos to have learners in groups! If that is the case, then a U –shape layout can be preferable. Learners are seated individually and each has direct access to the teacher. The teacher is able to move around and