It is generally accepted that teachers should first learn to teach in a mainstream setting before moving into a specialised Special Educational Needs (SEN) role, but this is not always possible. My own experience in teaching highlights this. My first job out of university was in the school I had completed my final year placement in. I loved the school and had done well in my last observations and received top grades. The day before term started, I was invited back to cover sick leave in the school's Senior Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) class. Nothing could have prepared me for the weeks that followed. I questioned how I had ended up in a position where, after four years of study, I knew nothing.
This obviously wasn’t the case and by the end of the first month, I realised that much of the worry and anxiety that I felt came from my wanting to not let the children down. I drew on the knowledge I had gained while studying and sought support from mentors and TAs who knew the children. In hindsight, I did everything as I should have. I spent time getting to know each of the children, building relationships with them, gently applying structure to their day, and settling them in after their summer holidays. I covered sick leave for 3 months with that class, before moving to a dedicated SEN Teacher role.
In this role, I withdrew children from the mainstream setting for one-to-one interventions. I mainly worked with children who had a diagnosis of ASD but also supported children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), Verbal Apraxia, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. I loved every second of this job as each day was so different. I spent time with children in Reception, right up to Year 6; the variety was amazing.
After this, I found myself back in the school's Junior ASD Unit, where I remained with the same class for 2 years. This role was a little more challenging but was also a huge learning experience and I made some memories that I still cherish to this day. More recently, I’ve been teaching in Year 4, but I often find myself looking fondly back at my NQT years. I’d like to share some of the key learnings I had during that time.
Progress is not linear
One step forward, two steps back. Sometimes, it really is like that. There were weeks when I would cover the same concepts, presented in a myriad of different ways, and I would worry that they were never going to be assimilated by the children. There were others where the children would ingest a month’s worth of learning in a few days. All children learn differently and when working with those who had additional needs, it’s important to meet the child where they are and go at their own pace. I was often guilty of trying to look back over a week or month and would beat myself up when learning objectives were not where I wanted them to be. But, once I reached the end of the year and reflected with my peers and leaders, I was always so proud of the progress my children had made, and more importantly, they were proud of themselves.
Know your audience
A mentor once explained to me that no matter how hard we try, we cannot teach a child unless he or she is regulated. It took me a while to get to grips with this. People with autism experience the world differently than their neurotypical peers. This could mean that a sound is heard differently, or a sensation is felt in a way that we would not expect. At times, this can become overwhelming and can result in an over-stimulation or under-stimulation of needs and as you can imagine, it would be very difficult to learn when feeling like this. The child may require support to help them get back to a place where he or she is comfortable. Knowing your class well is the greatest tool a teacher has here.
I spent weeks observing the children, noting situations of dysregulation, and documenting the antecedent and events leading up to it. I read reports and spoke to Occupational Therapists and Behavioural Therapists, all to better understand the needs of the children in the class. As a result, identifying when a child was becoming dysregulated became second nature to me and I could help and intervene before it reached a peak. More importantly, I was able to support the children in identifying these moments in themselves and teach them the skills they needed to maintain regulation.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Before becoming an SEN Teacher, I had never experienced emotional exhaustion. I had been tired from work before, from manual jobs or from working in call centres where I spoke to angry people all day, but this was something different. In my early days, I would leave school and my energy would be zapped. At home, I could barely talk to those I lived with and would sleep from 7 pm or 8 pm. By Friday evening, I was ready to collapse at 4 pm. Over time, I learned that I had to manage my energy and realised the importance of conserving it and looking after myself.
Children are energy vampires, any parent will tell you, they’ll drain it all if you let them. It’s the same for teachers. It’s important to look after yourself, making sure you’re getting nutrition and exercise to fuel your day. It’s equally important to have a cut-off point in the evening where you stop, down tools, and live your life. We work to live; we don’t live to work. By draining your battery, it’s not just you who will suffer, it’s the kids too. So, for the greater good, crack open a bottle, get the bowl of popcorn and unwind however you see fit.
Being in our position is a privilege
Even now, years after teaching some of the children, I will get texts and emails from carers and parents, updating me on their progress. If I meet them in the street, it’s always a hugely emotional experience for everyone. This is because, over time, you almost become part of the family. Working in an SEN setting means that you’re working with fewer children for more time, so you really get to know them. It also means that you have a strong relationship with carers and parents as this is needed to ensure continuity in learning between home and school. Being in this position is an honour and a privilege. They say that it takes a village to raise a child and I am so proud to have been part of so many of these villages throughout my career.