A year ago, I made an unexpected move from a mainstream middle school to a special school. I’d become disillusioned with teaching and needed either to shake up my career or give up on it altogether. By happy accident, I found myself supply-teaching in a special school as a prelude to taking over my own class of autistic children.
It’s turned into one of the best years of my working life – challenging, yes, but stimulating, exciting and fascinating. I’ve learnt loads.
A different space
Several times, I’ve been asked if teaching in a special school is ‘easier’. I’m surprised by the question: what does it imply about some people’s assumptions about special education? My answer is that it’s different. There is extra flexibility – there’s little point in insisting on a one-hour lesson if you’ll end up with a trashed classroom. There are more teaching assistants, but this brings with it the opportunity for greater personalisation of learning. There’s more emphasis on communication and social skills, from which many children in mainstream schools would also benefit. Still there are lessons to plan that address the full curriculum. Still there’s work to mark. Still there’s the expectation that children make good progress, working toward qualifications for a fulfilling and independent working life. Why wouldn’t there be?
Into this mix though, add the knife-edge atmosphere brought to the classroom by an angry student who’s had a bad weekend; the simmering resentment at something said in slightly the wrong way; the sudden explosion of anger that sends things flying across the classroom; the seemingly impossible concepts that create anxiety lasting for days; and that time I was pinned against the wall and throttled to the point I couldn’t breathe. Easier? I think not!
Learning to change
I’ve realised that much of that description could apply just as well to some of my own mainstream classrooms, and how much I regret not knowing before what I know now. Many times, I have thought about other SEN children I have taught and reflected on how difficult school was for them, and consequently, how much more challenging it was for their teachers and peers. Despite what I thought were my best efforts, a culture still existed in which the onus was on the child to adapt to the school, not for the school to adapt to the child.
I’m learning to adapt better. I’m fortunate to work for a school that provides excellent professional development, so I know more about autism than I ever have before, but much of my learning has come directly from spending time with the children in my class. When you work so intensively with them, you value and better understand their personalities so you can adapt your own character to match theirs. You develop calmness and patience because frustration and anger get you nowhere. Your knowledge of emotions at a subtle level (both theirs and yours) becomes finely tuned and the five-point scale means so much more – this year I have my own on the wall. You learn the strategies that work for individuals – when to back off and say nothing, when to take a break and get out the football, or a weighted blanket (who knew that could make such a difference?)
This latest stage of my career is far from over, but perhaps one day I shall return to mainstream, taking with me many valuable lessons, and be a better teacher for it. Resources are stretched and we are all under pressure but minimal investment in things like sensory resources and my own investment of time so I better know and understand the children I teach and can better respond to them – especially those with SEN, emotional needs or behavioural difficulties – would pay dividends for everyone. The numbers of those children in our classrooms is not going to go down, so a shift of culture and approach is imperative.
One of the most rewarding moments of this year came when one of the boys in my class told his parents, “Mike gets it”; but it’s reward tinged with regret about those children in my previous classes for whom, I realise now, I really didn’t get it.
About the author
Mike Parker has taught in primary, middle and special schools in Bournemouth and Dorset and until recently, was a deputy headteacher. He tweets from @mr_mike_parker.