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Special needs, special teachers

By Kristie Kellahan

Scholarships are helping recipients find ways to reach all students, writes Kristie Kellahan.

Rebecca Gibbs is a teacher at Mater Dei School Camden, which caters for students from kindergarten to year 12 who have been assessed with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities as their primary disability.

As a primary co-ordinator, Gibbs is implementing a new literacy program based on the principles of quality curriculum design, systematic and explicit instruction, and efficient use of resources.

A recent recipient of the Premier's Sport and Tourism Youth Foundation Special Education Scholarship, Gibbs is set to travel to North Carolina and Oregon to meet internationally recognised leaders in education. She will observe how schools and teachers design and implement classroom programs to assist students with special needs.

"The focus of my study relates to the delivery of quality education programs for students with disabilities," Gibbs says. "I will look at research being undertaken that focuses on ... effective teaching practices, assessment, and work on literacy skills."

Gibbs says she is excited about seeing firsthand the current research and developments in this area. "One challenge that special education teachers are faced with is providing access to the general curriculum for students with disabilities," Gibbs says.

"It is imperative that educators are provided with the skills and knowledge on current pedagogy and research that will assist them in adjusting the curriculum and instruction to tailor it to the individual's learning needs."

Olivia Rothwell is a special education teacher at Wiley Park Girls High School. She works within a support unit that caters for three classes of students with mild and moderate levels of intellectual disability, and one class for students with multi-categorical disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder.

"I teach all life skills syllabus but I enjoy teaching English, science and history the most," Rothwell says.

Also a recent recipient of the Premier's Sport and Tourism Youth Foundation Special Education Scholarship, Rothwell will travel to Colorado and Texas to observe the implementation of Collaborative Strategic Reading as a strategy to support high-school students' literacy skills.

"Special education teachers ... are often sidelined by the mainstream," Rothwell says.

"Their skills can be undervalued because they are working with people with a disability."

Rothwell says a typical day in the classroom is difficult to define. "It is hectic, stressful, frustrating and frequently chaotic, but the relationships that are forged between the students and staff is irreplaceable," she says.

"I decided to work in special education because I like people and I am interested in them. What I didn't realise is how much fun it is: there is not a day that goes by without one of my students making me laugh."


Published: 20 October 2012

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