In the last few years, emphasis on honing our teaching skills so that we can be effective teachers of all learners, regardless of their special abilities or weakenesses, has become the mainstream attitude in the Greek ELT. It could be argued that in this climate discussing how academic managers should support teachers who teach learners with special educational needs (SEN), might seem unnecessary since by definition academic managers are responsible for ensuring that the courses they market are provided in an appropriate environment and in a way that is meaningful and inspiring for both learners and teachers. This article sets out to discuss the kind of support teachers may require when teaching learners with SEN and the challenges inclusive educational practices may pose. Additionally, this article aims to discuss some frequent challenges and offer tips to support the teachers and promote their schools.
Healthy concerns of inclusive practices
Despite the fact that all schools have some kind of placement policy, educators know that they will end up teaching a mixed ability class which will consist of learners with very different individual needs. The idea of absolutely homogenous classes or ‘’classes of excellence’’ in some case, which was an often used marketing trick of the late 90s, has not catered so much for the needs of the learners as for the vanity of the parents. It is true, though, that the way in which teachers understand the extent of individual differences and the different rate at which each learner’s strengths may develop, has an effect on classroom climate and the learning that takes place during class time. It can also affect students’ level of success or failure and finally it is related with the teachers’ professional experience, their own learning experiences and educational background. No matter how experienced the teacher is, though, we need to remember that General English classes have a pace and an aim. The more intensive, competitive and exam-oriented a class is, the less it will suit the learning needs of a learner who faces learning difficulties that are not mild.
One of the first issues we need to address is whether the student has been diagnosed or not. If the student has been diagnosed and sees a specialist, his/her parents are more likely to share this information, rather than withhold it. Contrary to the 1990s when nobody wanted to have a child with any learning difficulty, in the first quarter of the 21st century minds have been changed and families now know that learning difficulties are not a sign of inability to learn; these children need to be taught in a different way.
The real challenge is when the student has not been diagnosed or the parents seem to avoid facing reality. In this case, since we are not equipped as teachers of English to make a formal diagnosis, we cannot give ‘’a verdict’’ to parents. This is both dangerous and unprofessional. What we can do is keep open channels of communication with parents and emphasise the strengths this learner may exhibit in class, while stressing that there are no children who do not want to learn.
Talking about individual learning differences to parents can help to get them think about how their child is learning, how fast and how deeply s/he engages with the material s/he is learning. What we are trying to do is provide the dots for the parents and let them join them. A word of warning is necessary here: much like we are not equipped to diagnose a learner, we are also not properly equipped to underestimate what the child is facing or even allow the parents to hope because we believe in our own superpower to ‘’right’’ all ‘’wrongs’’.
Once it is clear that there is a student (or more) who has special educational needs, a decision needs to be made by the academic manager (who will work closely with the teacher, the parents and the student in question) regarding what kind of learning environment (classroom, face to face, blended) is best for this particular student. In a classroom, interaction with other children and also being exposed to other people speaking English can benefit learners with special educational needs. At the same time, there are always cases in which children with SEN are seen as the weak link in a strong chain and mild bullying might occur in and out of the classroom. Additionally, parents of other children might complain about the pace of material coverage. From a totally different perspective, parents of children with special educational needs may complain because the class moves too fast for their children to be given a fair chance to learn. Finally, when students feel that the material is either too easy or too difficult for them they might experience different but equally extreme feelings of boredom or demotivation, exhaustion or a sense of being too overwhelmed to try. In cases like these, students resort to mishebaving, acting out and interrupting the lesson. On the other hand, it could be argued that private lessons (within the framework of the FLS) can still be easily cancelled, thus failing to achieve their goals or the student may feel excluded and lonely. If the option of a private lesson is chosen, academic managers need to ensure that there is a teacher on staff who has the time to teach this class, s/he is willing and suitably qualified and experienced. Quite often in our zest to sell and register students, we may forget to examine if teaching this student privately is feasible and financially sustainable.
The role of the academic manager
No matter if students with SEN are taught privately or in class the role of the academic manager is central in ensuring the best for the school and the learners. One of the first concerns of a responsible academic manager is to make sure that the teachers on his/her teachig team are all well-trained to teach all learners. Teachers chosen to teach students with SEN need to be additioanlly sensitive, patient and proactive, so that the class management problems mentioned above may never materialiase. Secondly, channels of communication are important in every case but in the case of students with SEN they are crucial. The academic manager needs to bring the family and the teacher in touch so that they can discuss the learning profile of the learner and review the methodology used the year before and its success. Sometimes, different assessment criteria may apply and this needs to be clearly defined and explained to the student. Finally, the academic manager is there to support the teacher by helping in the choice of teaching materials and in mediating between the teacher and the family in order to decide if the teacher should meet the specialist the student is /has been working with. Such a meeting can be a real eye-opener for the teacher and can act as a guide for the choices to be made. Last but not least, since as managers/ FLS school onwers we want to have a school that embraces all students and their special educational needs, offering regular and relevant training to teachers every year is imperative. No matter how much training we provide, though, teaching people with special educational needs can be rewarding, as well as challenging for teachers. A usual pitfall for academic managers is that they tend to underestimate the gravity and the complexity of the task, especially when teachers are asked to teach learners with SEN but they are not given the appropriate material or the necessary information. The role of the manager is to be present and available to discuss the situation with the teacher privately and draw an action plan together.
The importance of open channels of communication
To ensure that students with SEN will learn in a positive way, it is very important for academic managers to set up separate meetings with the teachers who are teaching students with special educational needs and take notes on what has worked and what has not. Teachers need to be encouraged to keep the channels of communication open with all parents, but this cannot be stressed enough when parents of students with severe cases of learning difficulties are concerned. This guarantees that we give them a regular update regarding their child’s learning early on, as well as options on what to do next. In this way our school shows that we are truly making every effort to ensure that all our students find an emotionally safe environment to learn, develop and reach their full potential.
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