Q&A with Helen D.

Helen Dent is a special needs educator at a rural facility. I recently spoke with her for an article on special needs education, however, upon receiving her answers I felt that the interview should also be published in its entirety.

Read on to find out her favourite thing about her job, why she feels IEPs are so important and other interesting information.

Q. Why did you want to work in the special needs sector?

A: I have always had a strong interest in special needs education. It is a highly demanding and varied area in which to teach. In order to be successful in this area, the teacher must have a very clear idea of the steps required to reach each learning goal and these steps must be explicitly taught to students.

The development of skills may be slower than in mainstream, but it is hugely rewarding when a student does reach their goal.

Q. It’s clear that you care quite a lot about your students, do you feel this makes you a better teacher?

A: It is my belief that in order to effectively teach students with an intellectual disability, a teacher needs to understand the individual student, his/her background history, likes and dislikes, and have a clear appreciation of the way in which the student learns best. When a teacher has a good understanding of these aspects of the student, then it is possible to set the most appropriate learning goals and achieve the best learning outcomes for him/her.

In order to gain this understanding, a teacher must first care about the student and their family, and then be invested in each student’s educational journey.

Q. How do you feel about the way special education is handled?

A: In my experience, the special education sector has been steadily improving over the past decade. In my particular setting, teachers and support staff are constantly required to upgrade their skills and expand their knowledge of student development and learning.

The development of the new Vic Curriculum has had a huge impact on special education. The new curriculum has specific and clear goals in all subject areas for students with learning disabilities. Students in specialist settings now have the same access to a fully rounded curriculum as mainstream students.

There is now far greater accountability required for teachers to record their extensive planning with explicit learning goals that match each student. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are now developed together with parents, teachers and therapists. Student achievement toward the IEPs must be carefully recorded and reported upon to show student progress.

These developments improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities and provide teachers with clear guidelines in order to provide the best teaching practices for students.

Q. What do you think works well currently and what would you like to see added/implemented in the future? (facilities, procedures, etc)

A: A very successful approach in the special needs area is the provision of an holistic approach to teaching. This requires drawing together best practice educational strategies to provide the best learning opportunities for students with an intellectual disability.

Students with an intellectual disability often require a greater emphasis on a multi-sensory approach to learning. This requires the teacher to provide learning experiences that include many of the senses. Students take part in activities that may include listening, speaking, moving, touching, smelling, making and singing to teach a particular skill.

Within our specialist setting, we guide our students towards understanding how to move into their optimal “learning zone”. Our students are taught skills to calm and ground themselves so that they are in the best possible mindset to absorb the learning activity. These skills include squeezing foam toys, bouncing balls, using fidget toys, listening to calming music, or focussing on their feet touching the ground. We have frequent “brain breaks” to let the brain switch off and then refocus on the learning task.

It is very important that all educational professionals, such as, physiotherapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and classroom teachers work closely together to develop and implement strategies that will help students to achieve their learning goals.

Q. What’s your favourite thing about your job?

A: I have many favourite things about my job!

One is the development of the deep connection and understanding that I get with each student. This can be gained thanks to smaller class sizes.

Another is seeing my students develop skills that enable them to gain independence and enjoy their life to the fullest.

My students are such amazing individuals who enjoy their lives and their learning, and who daily make me smile and make me thankful to be a part of their lives.

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