Most of us have come across teachers and educators who have our best interests at heart. Such mentors are truly a gift, as they strive to make us better people.
This Teachers’ Day, we are having a chat with Esther Kwan, the Vice-Principal of Special Education (SPED) Grace Orchard School. In our interview, Esther warmly shares her keen insights developed from more than a decade of experience in the field. Her selfless disposition and perceptive awareness of the special-needs space is akin to that of a wise steward. We talk about her journey, the common misconceptions people have of special-needs individuals, the impacts of the pandemic on teaching, and more.
Your 15-years tenure in Grace Orchard School has been exemplary, with you being the Vice-Principal currently. Tell us about your journey in Special-Needs education. How did it start and what made you choose to be a special-needs educator?
This isn’t going to be a very good story (laughs). I always wanted to be a teacher, although I never thought about special-needs education. I went to the U.S. and got a masters in elementary education. When I returned, I opened the classified ads, applied for a couple of jobs, and Grace Orchard School was one of the firsts who replied. My only hesitancy with teaching in a special education school was that I had no training in working with children with special needs. The closest experience I had is with my brother who has special needs.
Grace Orchard School was actually only a few years old when I joined them. There was thus a lot of pioneering work to do. I enjoyed a lot of autonomy to do different things during these fifteen years as my portfolio changed almost every two to three years.
For quite a number of years, I experienced ‘impostor syndrome’ because I was never trained in special education. In 2019, I had the opportunity to go to the U.S. to do my masters in special education at Vanderbilt University. You’ll think that I’ll feel less like an impostor, but then it just made me realise just how much more I don’t know. That’s education for you, right?
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced?
Trying to understand and take the perspective of different people. Many students I work with struggle with communicating how they feel or what they are experiencing. They are often misunderstood or they would express in ways that may be inappropriate or potentially aggressive. The hardest thing is to truly understand them and get to their hearts, as well as letting them know that we are here to help them. This applies to parents too, understanding their perspective and letting them understand what we are trying to do.
Teaching is really about people, investing in lives, from students to parents to fellow teachers and colleagues. So the biggest challenge is also that when you invest and the returns turn out to be not as great as you hoped it would be. It can be devastating.
One of the hardest things is when we lose a child. There are various forms of loss. We have lost students because of death. We have lost students because of circumstances in their families and we are just not able to work anymore with the child. We have also lost students to environmental influences, and at one point we have to say that that’s all we can do, and that’s tough. The onset of mental illnesses or regression of different medical conditions can also cause the loss of a child. I think that’s one of the hardest things.
How do you keep yourself going in the face of all these challenges?
Seeing my students have breakthroughs and doing more than we think they might be capable of is one of the most rewarding things.
There was a time we were working on an arts initiative called No Different that used arts as a platform that promoted inclusion and collaboration. At that time there weren’t many such arts initiatives so seeing my students and mainstream students working and performing on stage together was one of my proudest moments.
What are the typical misconceptions about special-needs students and educators that you have come across?
The main misconception stems from the labeling of people. Oftentimes, people see the label and forget that there’s a person behind that label. A person with a name, with dreams, hopes, fears, talents and weaknesses. They are just like everyone, just that they require more support. With the right support, they can be as independent as everyone else.
Think of it this way. During this year’s Paralympics, some swimming athletes may have to be on wheelchairs on land to get around, but in the water they are fully mobile. It’s because the environment determines our abilities. If I’m in the water or without my glasses, I am severely restricted. So it’s contextual to a certain extent. Perhaps it is us who have made the context disabling to people and put up the barriers when we expect things a certain way. For example, when we go to a fast-food restaurant, we expect the service to be swift. These expectations have caused such barriers to exist.
As for educators in special education schools, people think that you have to have certain qualifications to be one. All it takes is a willingness to listen and a desire to see somebody beyond what is on the surface. In terms of qualifications, all you need is a diploma in any discipline. We always need more special-education teachers.
As Vice-Principal, you are involved with higher-level planning. What are the changes you wish to implement so that students can be empowered even more?
I would love to see schools like mine close down. It would be a dream come true to see my students be in mainstream schools having peers (neuro-typical ones, if we want to use that term) and existing and learning with them. And then to have a replica of this outside of schools as well, becoming a societal norm. Of course, there needs to be options. Special-needs schools should still be available for those who need or prefer that space.
Currently we don’t have the infrastructure or the correct mindsets to achieve this. Attitudes like “not in my backyard” are difficult to change. But if people start seeing how beneficial how both parties growing together can be, I think it will result in a strengthened society.
If special-needs students are always segregated, then my students can never have friends who can give them good advice. This level of rational and beneficial peer support is really lacking. And those without special-needs will not learn how to work with or to appreciate people who are different from them.
Then there’s also the stigma attached to special-needs schools which results in some parents being reluctant to give their children who require them the right support, for fear of what others will think. Actually, there’s a large proportion of students with special-needs in mainstream schools. So why don’t we bring the best of both worlds together? How can we utilise the supports present in special-education schools and bring these expertise into mainstream schools?
How has the pandemic affected learning so far? Has e-learning been particularly tricky?
It really has expedited the fact that our students need to be more aware and knowledgeable about the internet and e-learning. Our school uses Google classroom as the main platform to host our e-learning materials, but there are so many other creative ways my teachers engage them online. Most of them navigate the e-learning space so well now, better than me!
We are using e-learning as a way for our students to learn self-directed learning. Our end-goal is for them to be independent. That’s what we are trying to accomplish through e-learning as well. However, e-learning cannot replace face-to-face instruction as most of our students learn better concretely with hands-on practice in authentic settings.
One of the biggest impact to learning the pandemic has brought is in the space of daily living. We have a curriculum called Daily Living Skills. It covers home living skills, self-care skills, as well as community living and mobility. This is where our biggest struggles lie.
Because of the group sizes, we cannot travel. It’s difficult to teach such skills virtually and not to provide authentic experiences. We are in the process of experimenting several ideas but haven’t found a solution to this. One of the ways we try to minimize its impact is to spend more attention on those who may not have as much parental support.
In 2016, you received the MOE-NCSS Outstanding SPED Teacher Award (OSTA) that recognised outstanding contributions in educating students with special needs. In 2018, you received the MOE Masters Scholarship in Special Education. How have these awards helped you in your journey? Are they a source of validation?
Such awards are not what I seek for. I’ve said that my job is not a job, in that sense I don’t plan out my career. It’s just that I’m fortunate to be presented with opportunities of learning and growing along the way. It’s really exciting and I’ve seen so much growth in this space over the last 15 years.
Of course, there is validation as you said, and I’m thankful and grateful, and overall they’re a blessing. But it’s also a signal that there’s more to do!
How do you think Singaporeans can help to make the society more inclusive for Special-Needs individuals?
I struggle a little with words like “inclusive” and “integration”. Over the past few years I’ve been leaning towards “belonging”. When you think of “inclusivity” or “integration”, there’s this sense of needing to include someone who is on the outside. When I think about “belonging”, I think about how I would help someone who is already in and part of the community to feel belonged. It switches things around. How do we help people to belong better?
While we have to acknowledge that special-needs individuals are different, they are also not different. It’s a paradox that we have to balance. When we sway to one extreme, we simplify things too much. Either there’s not enough support provided, which is needed or there’s too much support and that takes away their rights, while enlarging the difference between people.
Do you have anything you want to add?
Some fellow siblings and I started a volunteer-run organisation called SibsUnite. There has always been support for parents but we forget that siblings are a part of the family too! I’ve been fortunate to have support from my family and faith. We hope to reach out to other siblings and to get the word out that siblings also need support too.