We are often told the stories of teachers.
Of the gruelling days, the endless marking and sometimes insufficient pay. We hear of the hurdles and tiny triumphs that come with educating our children – but what we don’t hear quite so often, or really ever, are the stories of those who educate young Australians with disabilities.
Katherine Lingard, who has worked at Ashwood Special School in Melbourne’s south-east for five years, is one of those people.
“There isn’t really a typical day in a special school,” the 31-year-old special education teacher tells Mamamia.
“Despite the fact that we live and breathe routine… we need to let go of our control in order to sometimes work with our students and their needs that day.”
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While a classroom in a mainstream school will include an eclectic student group, a special school classroom is even more varied. As teachers like Katherine grapple with numeracy and literacy curriculum goals, they also manage a number of complex and sometimes conflicting impairments between students.
While one student might struggle with loud noises, another might struggle with deafness. While some might be easily distracted, others may be intently focused. While some may seek sensory stimulation, others may actively avoid it. Finding a balance – an often elusive equilibrium – that works for all members of the classroom is what Katherine tries to achieve every day.
“In our classroom, we cater for sensory issues, visual impairments, hearing impairments, auditory processing issues, gross and fine motor needs, comprehension issues, as well as a range of other challenges,” she explains.
“Depending on how students present, and what is happening in their life, each day can look extremely different. We provide extra support and assistance to do things for some students, and need to use short sentences, visuals and reminders and prompts to help students understand and remember what they are required to do.”
Katherine says that, to get through the day, her classes are aided with fiddle toys, movement breaks, visual assistance pictures, modified furniture and writing supports.
It's that sounds difficult, it's because it is. But the small wins and milestones make the hard days absolutely worth it.
"[The student's] milestones come at different times and at different paces," Katherine says. "So sharing the small wins, like putting together a three word sentence, reading a [book] for the first time, learning to tell the time, learning to use money in practical situations, remembering to unpack their bag on their own, playing with a friend for recess time, opening a lunch box for the first time, writing their name, or learning to tie shoelaces are things we celebrate."
Special school teachers aren't only there to ensure success in a vocational sense. They come to work every single day to empower young people with disabilities - to help them live happy, fulfilled lives. They are also tasked with something regular teachers may not be so intimately familiar with: empowering young people with the skills to be safe, and what to do when they aren't.
"Because our students sometimes cannot express their emotions, challenges or retell experiences to us that are of concern, we need to be able to be in tune with our students and assist them to communicate when they are in trouble," she says.
To make progress, each student in Katherine's classroom requires a "highly individualised" tailored working plan, one that is shared with a wider "team approach" including parents, assistants, speech therapists and specialists. Together, the group assists students with life after school, ensuring they have the skills necessary to regulate their emotions, resolve social problems, take care of themselves and - above all - thrive.
The ultimate goal? To ensure students "are leaving school capable to do things on their own, with healthy wellbeing and self-esteem, the ability to [make friends] and ask for help when needed."
Special education teachers aren't just preparing children and teens for university or TAFE; they're preparing them for life.
It's often an invisible career - one we seldom see, or read about - but one that makes our world an indelibly better place.
Nobody signs up to be a special education teacher for the money, notoriety, or status - they go into the profession because they care.
It's one of our saddest realities that society turns away from those who are different - we throw a veil over the Australians who have disabilities or difficulties we do not face ourselves, and it's wrong. So while we wait slowly, patiently, to see better representation of disability in the mainstream, women like Katherine are leading the charge to champion and support those our society has long ignored.
Our special education teachers need and deserve more recognition for the work they do every day, and for the compassion they bring to the world.
Because when many of us turn away, women like Katherine offer their hand.