Special needs teachers are not valued

Teachers trained in special needs education can make a valuable contribution.
Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse - Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse
Teachers trained in special needs education can make a valuable contribution. Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse - Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse


Anytime I hear the saying – "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid" – I think about children with learning disabilities in our country. Mainly because the structure of our entire education system fails to consider their differing abilities. This week, I am sharing an interview done with Vicky (not her real name) who's awaiting placement as a special needs teacher.

“I am 30 years old and I have a degree in special needs education from the University of TT (UTT). I am currently doing my master's in education. I always wanted to work with children with exceptionalities. I had a neighbour whose child had Down syndrome and a friend with an autistic child, and I used to interact with them often when I was a teenager, so when I finished secondary school I was very excited to start the degree in education at UTT. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to specialise in special needs education. I enjoyed my four years at UTT. When my classmates were dreading practicum, I was looking forward to it. I was placed in Lady Hochoy Home and although it was challenging trying to engage with children with different exceptionalities in one classroom, I took on that challenge and found ways to teach my lesson so that everyone could understand. I was looking forward to finishing UTT so that I could go into a school and really help children.

I have this poster in my room with a quote that became my mantra – “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” I envisioned a life, post-student, post-UTT, where I would be in a classroom and I would develop all these fun and creative ways to teach, I would make my students interested in learning so they will come to school excited. I knew it would be tiring and challenging but I was ready for that challenge. I always wanted to be a special needs teacher and I was looking forward to making a difference in children’s lives. Here I am, five years later, still waiting for an opportunity to get into a school.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse - Photo Courtesy - Rahul's Clubhouse

I have been very disappointed over the past years. First, graduating from UTT and realising that the Ministry of Education is not hiring teachers specialising in special needs education. I heard from a friend who works in the ministry that only a certain number of posts exists and they are all filled, so even though cohorts of students are graduating with their degrees every year, there are no posts for us. A couple of my classmates became teacher’s aides, working for the same salary as those aides with CSEC passes, even though they have a SPED degree. Many of us are willing to work as aides because we still get a chance to help children with learning disabilities and it is our area of specialisation but most end up doing private tutoring or working in private schools, most of the times for very low salaries. Still, we do it, because we are passionate about being a SPED teacher.

At the beginning of this year, the ministry advertised for SPED teachers and I think everyone who graduated since the past ten years probably applied because prior to this, there were no advertisements for SPED teachers for years. Two-and-a-half months later and we are still waiting to hear from the ministry. What I don’t understand is why UTT continues to run a degree programme in SPED for all these years, when the Ministry of Education wasn’t hiring SPED teachers.

I believe that special needs educators are undervalued in this country. When we look at the low performance rate at SEA levels, clearly there is a need to have SPED teachers available in schools. In fact, every single school should have SPED teachers to work with those students who are getting side-lined in the system. How many of these "low-performers" are students with learning disabilities? How many of them can learn if they are taught in a different way?

How many of those who are kept back in lower standards or who dropped out from schools are students who may have learning disabilities that were never diagnosed? In TT, we desperately need to raise the standard of education and have teachers trained in special needs education in all schools – to address all the learning disabilities that are not even noticed. We actually need a system to assess children from pre-school level and then we need to develop programmes to help them move through the system. Right now the system is the opposite – when children are diagnosed, teachers say they cannot work with them and principals say they cannot enrol them in the school.

If the Ministry of Education has a vision where every child should excel at all levels, then they wound understand that teachers who specialise in special needs education can play a big role in helping children excel. Don’t just produce SPED graduates, see their value, place them in schools and give the children with learning disabilities an opportunity to learn and excel also.”

Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T


"Special needs teachers are not valued"

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