Education is something that every child deserves and needs, in order to pave the way for their future. But did you know that special education is a field that is very unique and interesting too?
Today, Sharifah shares a glimpse of her “different”, yet extraordinary journey as a special education (SPED) teacher, impacting the quality of life of children with special needs at Rainbow Centre, a special needs school, where persons with disabilities are empowered to thrive in inclusive communities.
Could you briefly describe your job overview?
Children with special learning needs have been my source of inspiration. My journey as a special education teacher has been driven by the belief that every child, regardless of their different needs, has the right to participate fully in the community and to have the same choices, opportunities, experiences and joy as other children.
The work I choose to engage in with pride for many years now encompasses building the capacity of my students and their families. Being a teacher at heart, I work closely with a team of teachers and allied health professionals in Rainbow Centre to adapt and steer the changing landscape of education through on-going professional development and innovation to enhance our team’s competencies.
It is amazing how working with families, the community and stakeholders has become a needful agenda for special education practitioners like me, in advocating and advancing opportunities, as well as crafting access to inclusive possibilities. I am hopeful that this integrative and collaborative practice will bring about greater awareness, understanding, respect and meaningful engagement, resulting in better students’ outcomes and their quality of life with their families and in the community.
One of the best feelings is seeing my students grow in the time we have worked together. So whether it’s achieving a goal, learning a new skill or becoming more confident about himself, I am constantly moved and inspired by each individual’s capacity for change and progress!
My role has recently expanded to include work at our Rainbow Centre Training and Consultancy. This includes anchoring induction programmes that impact the learning journey of new teachers. With the experience I have built through the years, I share best practices, teaching strategies, as well as chapters of motivational stories that have helped colour the different phases of my life as a SPED practitioner.
Teaching students with special needs encompasses having good knowledge about the different profiles of students we teach and their diagnosis, and the pedagogies and skills needed to effectively engage and interact. Besides building this toolbox to deliver effective lessons, it is important for SPED teachers to have the right attitude and positive lens about the opportunities and possibilities for our students.
There are also different special projects related to advocacy for inclusion and diversity that I am currently immersing in. I am totally energised with these new challenges!
How would you describe your working environment?
“Choose Joy & Staying Curious”
I would say that it is truly a blessing to be in this amazing community of people who are extremely passionate, committed and resilient in the work we do and the “purpose” that drives us.
We choose to be in this special “space” to do this work and we all continue to stay grounded, yet full of aspirations! That each and every one of us are “social change agents” to advance policies and facilitate systems changes, and to catalyze practices to creating enabling accessibility, opportunities and participation for all!
It is interesting to share that the people who work in Rainbow Centre are full of diversity. We are made up of people with different work experiences and different educational backgrounds. I guess that this explains the uniquely flourishing ecosystem that we create together for our students, their families as well as for our fellow Rainbow Centre buddies.
Another highlight is the learning culture that all of us embrace together. Recently, in 2017, I was awarded the MOE SPED scholarship to undertake the full-time Masters in Education (Special Education) Programme at NTU-NIE. That journey in 2018-19 was definitely not easy. However, with the encouragement and support of my school leaders and colleagues, plus the peers @ NIE, I made it!
In life, one often face difficulties/challenges. We can choose to let whatever may be blocking us to determine our path and life. In this situation, we can turn around and choose to go past the challenges past us. Sometimes, I see my journey @Masters like being courageous in seeking out & deepening my knowledge, after which there comes the light at the end of the tunnel.
Could you share more about the types of students that you teach and your daily routine?
I work with students aged 7-18 years old. My students have a diverse range of abilities and special learning needs. They may have diagnoses such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, hearing impairment and intellectual disability. Some of my students have behaviourial challenges and difficulties with processing information through regulating their senses.
I work with a team of SPED teachers and learning facilitators (beginning teachers). The team is led by the Principal, Vice-Principal, Lead Teachers and Senior Teachers. We work as a close-knit team, supporting and learning from each other. Our team also consists of allied health professionals that include the psychologists, speech-language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, music therapists and social workers. The different specialisations come together to craft and provide holistic educational plans for our students.
As a Programme Lead, my typical school day is divided into teaching and mentoring hours. My day begins at 7.15 a.m. That’s the time I reach school and start preparing the classroom and setting up the teaching materials for the day. My co-teachers and I will have our morning check-in, confirming our plans and targets for the day, as well as the class choreography. My students come in at 8am.
As a SPED teacher, we teach all domains, including Language and Communication, Numeracy, Physical Development, Daily Living skills, Social/ Emotional skills as well as Vocational Readiness skills for our students preparing for transition from school to work. At Rainbow Centre, we have a comprehensive curriculum manual to guide us in targeting learning outcomes for our students.
My students attend 4.25 hours of school each day, Mondays to Fridays. However, SPED teachers stay in school till late afternoon for case discussions and planning meetings. We also design and make teaching materials that often need differentiation because our students vary in levels, needs and interests.
We design Individualised Education Programmes(IEPs) for each student.
There is a fair degree of independence expected from SPED teachers, but one assuring factor is that we are surrounded and supported by encouraging colleagues who are willing to help whenever we need a hand or mind-space to problem-solve or to explore new ideas and innovation in teaching.
Teaching is a complex but exciting work. We are like craftsmen, always learning and sharpening our skills.
Teaching in a special education school definitely requires us to have knowledge of the diverse disabilities plus skills and strategies to teach and engage students. I must say that there are other important attributes and attitudes needed. Besides being equipped with the necessary pedagogical knowledge, effective communication, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, special education teachers must have that positive mind-set, curiosity, perseverance and stamina!
Education is not something that is easy to hone - could you share more on why you decided to venture into this field of special needs education?
After I finished my tertiary studies 30 years ago, I became interested in the teaching profession. I was particularly keen on exploring special education as this was one area that was uncommon.
I love being around kids and I am someone who is always curious about learning new things.
I was really excited when I found an advertisement for the job of “Developmentalist” for a SPED School. That was the designation for teachers in Rainbow Centre back then. In the job advertisement, it stated:
1) Enjoy working with kids
2) Ready to learn
3) Like working in partnership with families
I thought that this sounded like an excellent job fit for me.
I am an enthusiastic learner. I am always delightfully seeking out new knowledge, challenging mindsets and striving to make every day positive.
Since day one, I have stayed curious. Upon reflection, I feel that it is this attitude that has powered and continued to further enlighten the breadth and depth of the conversation, discussion, learning, probing, analytical work and research in my journey in special education.
Teaching in SPED schools is essentially a collective endeavour in which we can all learn from each other to continuously improve each child’s learning outcomes.
Personally, I feel that networking, collaboration and genuine engagement with an open sharing of knowledge and resources are important strategies in the development of inclusive educational environments here in Singapore.
In this context, capacity building and professional development needs to go beyond just information, growing the potential to embrace difference and learn together.
What do you think is the most challenging part about teaching students with special needs?
One word that resonates with my profession, as a SPED teacher is “Endeavour”, i.e,. To exert physical or intellectual strength for the attainment of; to use efforts to effect, to strive to achieve or reach SPED. Teaching is not just a job or career, but as an intellectual, physical and social-emotional endeavour.
Personally, I think that it is one of the most challenging jobs, which is also what makes it very unique.
It can be likened to doing a puzzle you can never fully solve. It is that constant quest every day to find what works for every child, every learner, in every class. No two days are the same, which is also one factor that makes this profession extraordinary.
Sometimes I feel a little sad when I see really challenging behaviour and sensory issues that my students face. Some of my students with severe autism experience difficulties in regulating and integrating their senses in different spaces/environments. This may result in meltdowns. They may not have enough skills to communicate their emotions and express their needs in appropriate ways too. This is why we work on equipping them with strategies to regulate their senses and improve communication skills.
In such cases, it takes lots of patience, teamwork and grit.
I must admit that I do get pretty intense at work sometimes, whether working with kids or executing special programmes in school. Also, I often set out high expectations for myself in the work I do.
I have learnt to look at setbacks as part of my journey. I tell myself that setbacks or disappointments are opportunities for me to take a pause, to reflect or to take a closer look at myself, my work, expectations, resources, systems and procedures. I also learn that at times it is also necessary to learn to “let it go” and to move on.
I am blessed that I work in an environment where my leaders and colleagues embrace positivity and are always there to cheer me up or lend a hand or mind-space to problem-solve or to explore new ideas and innovation in teaching and learning.
A buddy gave me a cool gift that I place on my desk that states: “Keep Calm and Carry on Carrying-On”. Looking at this makes me smile .
In this journey, stopping to breathe and cleverly catching “a-ha” moments keeps me positive and energised.
Our journey in the social service sector (including as a SPEd educator) is like running a marathon. At times, we may have to walk through terrains that are rocky, unknown and unfriendly.
We get exhausted and may lose momentum. Being mindful and knowing how to take care of ourselves is important. My advice to fellow SPED teachers is to stay curious, with buckets of resilience and tenacity. This is a different journey, one that touches hearts and impacts lives. It is satisfying and it’s worth it!!
Could you share with me some of the most special and rewarding memories that you've had with your students?
Here’s an especially memorable and emotionally rewarding chapter with one of my students.
In my early years as a teacher, I worked with students with multiple disabilities. One such student was Xing Xing (her nickname). She had Leigh syndrome: a neurological disorder that is characterized by progressive loss of mental and movement abilities.
I taught Xing Xing for 2 semesters. We got along really well. She enjoyed school and was always cooperative even during physiotherapy sessions which were sometimes challenging for her.
She stood out as a brave and happy girl. She enjoyed stories and songs. Her condition deteriorated during the December school break that year and her family became really worried. One afternoon, Xing Xing’s grandma called me to share that Xing Xing had stopped eating for a few days and was not opening her eyes for about a week. She invited me over to their house as she said that probably “Xing Xing missed me”.
That evening was indeed the most memorable event in my life. As I entered Xing Xing’s room, I saw how her family members were feeling low. They shared that they were “almost giving up” as she showed no response to anything or anyone.
I walked towards her. She was on her bed. I touched her left hand and gently tickled her fingers. At the same time, I whispered in Xing Xing’s ears her favourite nursery rhyme: “Round and round your hands”. As I continued singing the 3rd verse of the rhyme with my fingers moving up her arms, Xing Xing gave a little smile with some movement in her eyes. I remembered how everyone in the room cheered merrily.
Xing Xing seemed to remember my voice as her fingers slowly moved and ruffled in my loving hands. That scene continues to be very vivid in my mind and heart.
I continued to visit her in the next few days. I was really happy that my songs and stories continued to excite her. We continued our happy relationship when semester started the following year.
Although Xing Xing passed away one year later due to respiratory complications, she will always be an inspiration for me in my journey.
As a person, I am joyful, optimistic and intrinsically driven by my values of simple virtue, positive and steadfast in duty. This translates in the way I craft my daily routines, carry out my responsibilities, as well as in the manner I steer my relationships with my family, colleagues, my students and their families, and the people I interact with. I stay resilient in my journey to build strength of character that I consider important to stay positive, committed and focused to my goals.
I hope to continue to impact the community around me and to spread the message of “the joy of teaching and learning” plus the attitude of always being grateful as we journey in life.
There's a stigma in Singapore that special needs students aren't as readily accepted as compared to typically developing students - how do you think we can work together to break this stigma?
My hope, with the collective efforts of the community in our ecosystem, is for the community to embrace diversity and to have greater awareness, understanding, acceptance and enhanced support for people with special needs and their families.
It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village with a positive mindset, shared vision and respect for one another regardless of abilities to create a kind and caring community. It is the clarity of our shared vision to enhance the quality of lives of the children we serve that propel us to think big, think inclusive, be innovative and to thrive as one in this exciting transformation adventure!!
Each individual with special needs is unique. One individual with autism spectrum disorder, for example, can have very different abilities, likes, needs, strengths and challenges from another.
Many people on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, academic, art and music skills. About 40 % have average to above average intellectual abilities. Indeed, there are many individuals with autism who take deserved pride in their extraordinary, distinctive talents, abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world around them.
My hope is that people in our community embraces the culture of inclusivity and respect, and to pick up and learn some soft skills to help people with autism integrate into the social setting
“Always Seek First to Understand”
Individuals with autism are overwhelmingly challenged by difficulties with organization, both in terms of their own selves, and in their interactions with the world and the environment around them. Putting in place routines and predictability, alongside structure and appropriate visuals to make expectations clear, can help people with autism integrate easier in social settings.
Anxiety and stress are real by-products of the challenges of autism. It is really important and helpful to be aware and to be mindful of this when interacting with and supporting people with autism.
Having a positive attitude of non-judging, compassion and patience will come a long way in building relationships with people with autism. I am optimistic that our Singapore community is becoming more open, kind and accepting of people with different abilities.
As the saying goes, “it takes two hands to clap” – education is nurtured through the active synergy between enthusiastic students and their teachers, to bring about bountiful learning to their curriculum. Sharifah envisions and hopes that special education for special needs students will continue flourishing, and for the community to be more accepting and kind to these students who are just as willing to learn too.