Inspired by Learners with Special Needs
Ms Gloria Yzelman is St. Andrew’s Autism School’s Programme Lead for students aged nine to 12 year old. This year, Gloria was recognised for her work in special education when she was named a recipient of both the MOE-NCSS Outstanding SPED Teacher Award and the MOE Masters Scholarship in Special Education.
We take a few moments here to tune in to her as Gloria shares insights she has gained through her seven years in the special needs sector.
What inspired you to become a special needs teacher?
Graduating with a psychology degree, I was looking for a job in case management that would involve conducting assessments, and providing support for individuals and their families.
However, when I applied to St. Andrew’s Autism Centre (SAAC), I was instead offered a position as a teacher with St. Andrew’s Autism School (SAAS). That was in 2013, and I have no regrets!
I really love working with the students! They are my inspiration and motivation to keep working in this field even though is a challenging job with its ups and downs. Yet, these have been my most fulfilling years. I enjoy being with the students, and I hope they too enjoy being with me on this journey.
What has been the most memorable experience as a special needs teacher?
During my first year at SAAS, I had a student who would not speak. She also had challenging behaviours that led to frequent meltdowns. For example, during snack time, she would snatch her classmates’ food. When her teachers stop her from snatching, she would get upset and it would often lead to a meltdown.
One day, she again reached out to snatch her classmate’s biscuits. But I stopped her. She immediately started wringing her hands, a sign of escalation that may lead to a meltdown. I said to her, “If you’d like a biscuit, you should ask.” I was not expecting an answer, but she replied “Biscuit!”. My jaw dropped when I heard her reply.
It may be a small and perhaps insignificant incident to many, but on that day, my student became my teacher. Inappropriate behaviour does not appear from nowhere. The lack of communication skills is often the cause of many behavioural problems with children with autism.
Now, every time I engage a student with challenging behaviours, I always ask myself: “Is my student trying to communicate something to me? And if so, how can I teach them to communicate it appropriately?”
What are three important qualities that special needs teachers need to have?
First is perseverance.
As special needs educators, we can feel frustrated, and be tempted to give up when we do not see immediate results. For example, when students do not seem to progress as fast as we would like them to, or when, in the process of intervention, behaviours seem to worsen.
Yet, I believe that things have to get worse before it gets better. Just like experiencing the rain before a rainbow can appear; and, if we are lucky, we may even get to see a beautiful double rainbow.
Second is flexibility.
The students at SAAS tend to have higher support needs. Every student with autism is different, and learns differently. One size does not fit all. While one method might work with one student, it may not work with another. You must learn to be flexible.
The third is being fun in class.
Really. Be fun in the classroom! Just think of your school days. What was your favourite teacher like? I bet that that teacher was fun and passionate! Students can tell when you are having fun, and when you bring that fun energy to the classroom!
What would you describe as one of your favourite aspect of St. Andrew’s Autism School? Why?
I love the facilities provided for the students.
To ensure that the students are benefiting from our programme here, the school has gone the extra mile to create a comfortable and suitable learning environment for the students. From the air-conditioned and structured classrooms to a specially designed sensory room by our Therapy Department, the school is doing its very best to ensure the students are being well taken care of during the few hours that they are here with us.
Also, a number of our classrooms have been equipped with Interactive Projectors for our whiteboards. As a teacher, I’m grateful for the many facilities and resources that assist me in planning fun and engaging lessons.
Share with us one challenge of the job and how did you overcome it?
One challenge is the steep learning curve.
You have to learn on the job and through trial and error, find the most effective teaching strategies and interventions for the students. However, I must say I was blessed with a very experienced mentor and co-teacher who quickly taught me all there was to know about autism and teaching students with special needs.
To help equip teachers with the necessary skills, SAAS sends its teachers to various courses and workshops to help us develop our teaching skills. One such course is the Diploma in Special Education with NIE, which I completed. It is a course for special needs teachers to learn about teaching individuals with a range of disabilities.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
I would ask parents with a young child or children in a mainstream school to encourage their child how to interact with other children with special needs. To be a truly inclusive society, we have to develop intrinsic qualities that can only be nurtured and maintained from young.
While your child can be an effective teacher to a child with special needs, teaching them appropriate social and communication skills, children with special needs are beautiful teachers as well. They can teach your child how to be a loving and selfless member of society. No textbook can teach humanity.