My very first teaching post was as a language assistant for the British Council in Colombia. Before starting the job, I did a one-week TEFL preparation course in the UK, attended a brief orientation week in Bogota and was then sent off to Pamplona, a small university town high up in the Andes. It was all quite daunting to start with as I was given a lot of responsibility from day one, but I remembered all the tips and ideas I learnt on my training courses and started out with a fun activity familiar to all EFL teachers that involved throwing a ball around the classroom to find out everybody’s names. I arranged the class of students in a big circle, carefully explained the activity, checked instructions and was about to start when there was a knock at the door. A moment later a young student walked in, arm-in-arm with a friend who announced “This is Maria. She’s in your class and she’s blind.” (With a name like Maria you may think I am making this up, but I promise you her name was Maria and this story is true!)
Unfortunately my one week intensive TEFL course hadn’t prepared me for dealing with students with visual impairment so I had to quickly think on my feet to make sure that Maria didn’t feel left out as the others threw a ball around the class. In the lessons to follow I had to be creative and attentive to make sure Maria was not made to feel excluded. It wasn’t always easy and I particularly remember being at a complete loss when it came to teaching colours! Luckily my work load was light and so I was always able to dedicate extra time to Maria after the lesson to help her transcribe the lesson into braille. Working this way she was able to make progress and passed the year in English. However, that was not the case for all her other subjects and sadly Maria had to drop out of university as she wasn’t getting all the necessary support she needed. I was very sad when Maria came to tell me this news and it made me think “I wonder how many other bright and intelligent students around the world have missed out because they haven’t received all the attention they deserve”.
In my 27 years of ELT experience that followed (18 years of that at Cultura Inglesa, Rio) I continued to learn on the job as I did that first day. I was provided with plenty of professional training in the areas of teaching and methodology, teacher training and materials development. It has to be drawn to attention though that the area of dealing with students with special educational needs was never part of the syllabus of any training course I ever did. One might say that a teacher with a positive attitude and good training that allows them to use a variety of classroom activities and a multi-sensory approach will be able to attend to the needs of different types of learners, including those with special needs. This can be true up to a point. However, no one can deny that having a better understanding of students with special needs and learning about effective techniques makes us better equipped to help these learners overcome their difficulties.
Many of you have probably experienced a similar situation to my early teaching experience in Colombia when I was standing in a circle unsure what to do. Your experience may not have been with a student with visual impairment, like Maria, but perhaps you have come across a student with different special needs such as hearing impairment, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBDs). If this is the case and you feel it’s important to be more prepared to deal with special needs students, you will be interested to know that on the 3rd of December, United Nation's International Day for People with Disability, the British Council is launching their new TeachingEnglish Special Educational Needs (SEN) course.
This course has been designed to fit in with the busy lives of teachers. It is 100% self-access and is modular, so teachers can chose to do modules that are most relevant to their needs if they feel they don´t have time to do all the modules. You can find more details about the course content and how to sign up for it here
. And if you want to get started right away, from the 2nd to 5th December there will be five different webinars dealing with a range of special educational needs, presented by renowned experts in this field. You can check out the schedule on the British Council TeachingEnglish site
. And don’t worry if you´ve missed any of them as they are all recorded.
According to the most recent census in Brazil, 14.5% of the population live with some degree of disability and worldwide there are over one billion people. For the International Day for People with Disability I would like to share a quote from one of my favourite writers, Isabel Allende:
"Peace requires everyone to be in the circle – wholeness, inclusion."
This is a week to celebrate all that is possible for people with disabilities and to be proud of the fact that, as educators, we are able to play our part in ensuring that all are included in the circle.
Paula is the English Academic Manager for the British Council in Brazil. For more information about the course, please, click here