During my second internship as part of my Bachelor of Education, I decided to try my hand at teaching children with special needs. I had the amazing opportunity to student teach in a high school class at the MacKay Centre, a school primarily for students with disabilities. In order for the students to feel like they could have a real high school experience, their main classroom was held at Westmount High School, a mainstream high school.
The six students in this segregated classroom had varied disabilities. Most were multi-handicapped meaning both physical and intellectual disabilities were present. As a student teacher I did not have access to their personal files and therefore I could only guess what their specific disabilities were. To me, this did not make a difference to how I would teach them. The low student-to-teacher ratio meant that I could spend a lot of one-on-one time with each student allowing me to teach the specific skills for each lesson. Very quickly, I realized that, as with most classes, a one size fits all lesson was not going to work. Some students were able to write and some used a Dynavox as a system of communication. I had to adapt each lesson to the capabilities of each student. This was a challenge I loved. Creating lessons from scratch, making tasks and adapting life skills ignited a passion within me.
The four weeks I spent with these students were valuable in shaping the teacher I am today. The supervising teacher was the perfect balance of firm and friendly with her students. Each student knew what was expected of them and even in a highly structured schedule there was always room for some spontaneous learning and fun. Every day started with some type of journal entry. For one student, it was a drawing and one short sentence while for another it was a short paragraph written on a computer. The lesson that followed always centred on life skills such as counting money or making lunch for themselves. This was very different from the three R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatics) normally taught to high school students. This opened my eyes to what education really is. For neurotypical as much as for students with special needs, school is a place where you are with your peers learning what you need to become a successful adult. For a neurotypical child, being a successful adult is having a job, making money and starting a family. For a child with a moderate to severe disability, being successful is being as independent as possible. Success is making a sandwich for lunch, taking public transit to get to a medical appointment or functioning within social situations such as going to a restaurant.
This experience changed my view on what my job as a teacher consists of. It is not simply making my students memorize information from a text book and giving them a test at the end of the term. Teaching is really about inspiring students and giving them the tools they need to become successful. I came away from this class being even more sure of the career I had chosen. I loved being able to witness the successes of each student. Their successes might be small in the eyes of an outsider but to me they were like watching the students walk on the moon.