West End Academy, The Republic of Macedonia (Winter 2018)
|Miranda – The Tempest, 1916. John William Waterhouse,
Oil on Canvas. London, Royal Academy, 1916, no. 52
“If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” – Alan K. Simpson
This quote has found its true home in education. Receiving a degree in education is only the first step in becoming a teacher. The unspoken truth is that university training hardly prepares teachers for real life; for the future challenges, the emotional distress, and the overwhelming gratification.
I have been a teacher for as long as I can remember. My degree in English language and English literature only settled the formalities in terms of my vocation. Two months after graduation I found a job as an English teacher in a state primary school. It was not difficult: my grades were high and there were numerous openings because of changes in the state curriculum. Namely, English language was to be taught to pupils from the first grade. That meant that the youngest students were six years old. A brave new world for me.
The only formal teaching experience I had was as a teaching assistant in English Literature at the university. I always thought that teaching Modernism and Shakespeare to college students was the most difficult and demanding task as an English literature teacher until I entered a classroom full of a six-year-olds, one of whom was a beautiful boy with autism sitting with his mother. At that time I did not know the boy had autism; that information was communicated to me afterwards by his mother and the head teacher.
The boy smiled through the entire lesson and his beautiful blue eyes wandered curiously around the classroom. Our eyes never met, but that was not entirely unexpected – he could have simply been just another shy boy. His mother, of the same joyous disposition, accompanied him in the classroom during lessons. Once the lesson ended, the head teacher invited the boy’s mother and me to her office and gave me the necessary background regarding his medical condition and what that meant.
I cannot begin to explain my emotional turmoil. I had a problem. The problem was not with the boy, and it was not with the mother – I was the problem. I was not expecting this, and especially not on my first day at work. I had just turned twenty-three and expected my professional life to be by the book.
It was a lot to take in at once, so in the following couple of weeks the head teacher and I came to the conclusion that the first thing to be done was to create a safe learning environment for the boy. The situation was new to the head teacher as well. We decided that we had to find a way to establish a connection, a teacher-student relationship full of kindness and trust. Moreover, having a productive and respectful parent-teacher relationship was of utmost importance if we were to make any progress in the boy’s intellectual and psycho-physical development and advancement.
We worked to create a positive classroom experience for every student. The head teacher and I encouraged the other pupils to socialize with the boy, to help him with his pencils and notebooks, and not to be angry if he took anything from their pencil case because he would always give it back. The open and positive energy flow from the mother, who was constantly present in the classroom at the beginning, contributed to his full acceptance by his classmates. They experienced her as a warm mother figure in the classroom, along with their head teacher and me.
Like in many things in life, it was crucial to find the right balance between demanding too little and demanding too much from the boy. The former meant underestimating his capability and hindering his development, and the latter meant creating possible resistance and dislike towards school, thus, again, hindering his development. I spent hours reading books, studies, and articles on autism (such a broad term!) and discussing the boy’s condition with the experienced school psychologist.
The first notions I acquired regarding autism which fitted the boy’s behavior were: atypical verbalization, i.e. atypical use of language, lack of proper gestures and eye contact, restricted fields of interest, commitment in symbolic play, and lack of social skills. I soon realized that reading academic materials on autism represents only a part of the puzzle. So, I started reading the boy. And there was a lot to learn from him, as well as from the mother, my greatest educational source in the classroom. I had to learn a great deal about myself, too.
One of the requirements for me as a teacher was to develop a special program aimed at setting attainable learning goals for the boy. The state curriculum had to be reworked in order to fit the needs and the abilities of my pupil. Since he was hardly using speech to communicate (and even when he did, it was atypical), I decided to teach him vocabulary using visuals. He displayed a great ability to recognize pictures and the meaning behind them. I planned a specific list of words he was supposed to acquire during the first grade. The list included names of school objects, animals, family members, colors, numbers, weather conditions, feelings, shapes, adjectives, rooms in a house, and adverbs of place. I brought numerous pictures to class and in a soothing and caring voice told him the meaning and the English counterparts of the words. His mother also assisted me in bringing visuals and constantly repeating the vocabulary to him at home as a form of homework. I always pronounced the words clearly and encouraged him to say them regardless of his difficulties in the pronunciation. However, vocabulary acquisition was only one of the goals I had set for the boy in the first grade.
Another goal was to try and work on his independence in the classroom. Once the boy felt comfortable in my presence and safe among his classmates, his mother would leave him for several minutes and stood outside the classroom. The purpose was to build his character and make him a stronger individual and a more integrated part of society.
I set another goal for his social skills when he was not in the company of a known adult. We played games where he would have to be a part of a larger group of pupils, and every pupil assisted him in various ways. They would often hug him, trying to show their support and friendliness. It is incredible how many things we can learn from children, especially their open-mindedness and their will to help a person in need. Inclusion, a process that started in primary schools in Macedonia before 2008, sets an example for a new inclusive society. The other pupils in the classroom displayed character traits such as: empathy, selflessness, generosity, humility, and friendliness. The inclusive classes became beneficial not only for special needs students, but also for the rest of the students as they fought societal narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and judging.
The boy reached his goals and his success story continued for the next eight years. He encountered more teachers, but they all adopted the same manner of teaching in order to achieve success in various school subjects. The collaboration between teachers, parents, and the school psychologist contributed to a much higher quality for this little boy than was initially expected.
I have been a teacher for ten years. After this boy, I have taught dozens of students with special needs, or as I prefer to call them, special abilities. I have changed a lot over the past decade. My work has been recognized by UNICEF and I have been hired to co-author a handbook for teachers that would assist educators in improving the educational process for special needs students. This is, indeed, a brave new world – full of possibilities, abilities, creativity, love, respect, and integrity. And we know what they say about integrity – if you have it, nothing else matters.
- National Research Council. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Educating children with autism. Washington: National Academies Press; 2001.
- Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. 14 Sites, United States; 2008.
- Volkmar F, Paul R, Klin A, Cohen D, editors. Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders, assessment, interventions, and policy. 3rd ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons; 2005.
- McGregor KK, Berns AJ, Owen AJ, Michels SA, Duff D, Bahnsen AJ, et al. Association between syntax and lexicon among children with or without ASD and language impairment. J Autism Dev Disord; 2012.
ELIDA MELOVA has a rich and versatile teaching experience. She has taught English literature at four universities and English language at state and private schools. She is the author of numerous literary translations, mostly for the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival, a renowned poetry festival. She is one of the authors of an upcoming handbook for teachers working with special needs children in collaboration with UNICEF. She has taught a drama course to special needs students, improving their use of language and social skills. Currently, she is the CEO of West End Academy, Macedonia.