As someone who was put through the Mainstream Education system as a “Special Educational Needs” student from the late 1970’s to 1990, I wanted to find out what life is like for the people who have to teach people like me (the teachers).
After I had left school one of my former teachers told me the staff used to have meetings about what to do about me (it might have helped if they had invited the one person who could have helped them – ie, me). This was a long time ago and I don’t have any memories of such meetings (though of course they may have happened). Nor do I recall being given any special instructions or equipment, if such existed, for helping you, given that you were in a mainstream class. Absolutely you should have been invited to such meetings, and / or there could have been discussion groups where pupils and staff could openly air their concerns.
This inspired me to write the poem below;
I don't understand.
I know I'm not very good,
But I didn't think I was this bad.
My head's so stretched,
I just can't cope.
Feels like someone's.
Put my brain on overload.
I don't know why,
Everyone's going on at me.
Where's the door,
To 'Escape Capsule 3'?
You think I'm living,
In a daydream more often than not.
Dear Sir, to stop me doing that,
Would turn my life support machine OFF!
You say I could do better?
Well, I couldn't feel much worse.
It wouldn't surprise me,
If I left school in a hearse.
Don't get me wrong,
I know you're not to blame.
I want to ask for your help,
But the other kids would still call me names.
Now do you understand?
I never was very good.
But I wasn't really that bad!
I asked my favourite teacher from my days in Secondary school if he would be prepared to collaborate on this blog post and discuss “Teaching and Sight Problems” with me. Luckily he agreed.
Steve Bowkett was an English teacher when I first met him in 1985. He has also written several books – and a poem!
Hi Steve – thanks for agreeing to do this.
My overriding emotion when I look back on my time at Secondary school is one of overwhelming loneliness. I felt like I was the only person in the school who had difficulties. From what I can remember – nearly all my teachers appeared to be “normal-sighted”. I would have loved to have one teacher who had some kind of disability so I could see how they coped. It would also have made me feel less outnumbered.
My first question is – do you think it would help if teachers had practical experience of sight problems (and other disabilities) either as a result of being disabled themselves or attending courses where they were given a chance to experience exactly what it is like? I think there are issues around recruiting disabled teachers specifically because of their ‘practical’ experience of disability. They may or may not be good teachers and their disability might not give them insights into some pupils’ problems. Also, if for example a sight-impaired teacher were employed hopefully to put his / her experience into practice, would teachers with other disabilities need to be employed to bring their own insights into school policy? I would also have concerns that teachers with disability may have difficulties with some pupils who don’t understand what they’re going through (which is a nice way of saying, some kids would play up!)
I take the point about loneliness and frustration etc, and would certainly advocate disabled people being involved in talking with teachers on courses, through INSET sessions, YouTube interviews etc.
My second question kind of leads on from that. I don’t know what it is like in schools nowadays but – speaking personally – would you (as a teacher) be prepared to sit down with a student and listen to them when they told you about the difficulties they had in accessing your methods of teaching? (In fact, most of the time, you were the one teacher I found easiest to cope with. There were two other teachers whose lessons I came to dread because, not only did their teaching methods make my brain hurt but their general demeanor indicated they would not have welcomed me asking for the kind of help I needed.) Personally I would always be prepared to sit down with a student to discuss issues around their disability. Some schools nowadays probably build such dialogue into their ethos and policies. Practically, I think teachers are more pressured now than ever because schools are still sausage-making machines and, alas, seem to be run on a corporate/business model where results are all. This means that time is at a premium for most staff – though of course accommodating people with special needs would improve their educational experience and lead to better results.
You’ll appreciate that I go into schools nowadays under specific circumstances, as an author, so only get a snapshot of what any school is like. As always, there are good and not so good schools. Quite often I’m told beforehand that a child in a class is autistic, hearing-impaired, etc, and my impression is that many schools are much more aware of pupils with special needs these days than 30-40 years ago (can it be so long?). There is also more advanced technology available now that potentially can help – I’m thinking of sight-impaired pupils having access to visualisers, laptops, etc, and other devices that you probably know much more about than I do.
Being a “Special Educational Needs” student has a habit of inviting a different type of bullying than other students might be subjected to (even to the point where the student can feel like the teachers are joining in). This very quickly led me to the point of not even trusting most of the teachers. I can remember being shouted at by one teacher as a result of something which had happened – when I told them why I had done it (I told them straight out that I wanted to move to the secondary school in the village I lived in) I was left feeling patronised by their reaction.
If only I had had a teacher who I could have used as a go-between before things got to that stage. There was a (in my opinion top-heavy) pastoral regime at the school where I taught you, so potentially a support structure was in place. This does not mean that any given pupil would ‘get on with’ and feel supported by particular teachers. Another problem in my experience was that once ‘Baker days’ and the 1265 hours diktat were imposed on schools, meetings were called for the sake of being seen to be filling the time. I remember spending several hours as part of a ‘working group’ discussing some topic or other – I don’t remember if it was around the issue of disabilities – and our recommendations, which would require time and money, were ignored. On challenging this we were told by the deputy head that ‘the need had been identified’: beyond that, nothing ever happened. I suspect similar scenarios occur in some schools today. I would have loved to be able to sit with one of you teachers and tell you how I felt and how best to make my life easier. In some cases it would have been a case of making some minor changes to teaching methods, or the layout of a classroom, in other cases it would have involved asking someone to wear a jumper or a (different) coloured shirt. (White shirts and bright lights are a torturous combination when your eyes are sensitive to bright lights.) I would never have objected to you asking me to wear certain coloured shirts, etc, if it helped you to get on in class, though I appreciate that there were some teachers you would never have approached about this!
Would you agree that it would be a good idea for a teacher who a student obviously likes (or trusts) to be a go-between when it comes to telling other teachers about any problems the student has? (And does such a thing actually exist nowadays?) Even back then (when the world and I were young), form tutors, year heads, etc, were supposed to do that as part of their role. Of course, any given pupil might not like or trust their form tutor or year head, in which case the system falls down. Ideally it would be a good idea if a teacher that a pupil gets on with felt able to and comfortable with passing on that pupil’s concerns to colleagues. Practically speaking it depends upon how well staff get on with each other and whether that teacher would himself/herself feel comfortable talking to other colleagues about such matters. As I’ve suggested in my responses above, such a system probably exists in some schools but not others.
In your own case, in light of the occasions when teachers didn’t understand you or shouted at you, it would have been difficult for me to confront them directly if personally I didn’t like, trust or respect them – and frankly that included several members of staff! I would of course have highlighted issues to head of year or form tutor on an ‘official’ basis, but my own gut feeling is that support structures work best in schools where the people ‘gel’, where colleagues get on with each other and where such matters can be discussed informally as well as in a more formal way.
Do you have any other comments to add to this?
Really, to sum up, then and now there are good schools and poor schools in terms of addressing the particular needs of some pupils. I think schools generally are more aware of such pupils, partly because more research has been done in various areas of behaviour (ADHD, autism etc), and better technology exists now to support a range of special needs.
Frankly Ineke, I think our school was not brilliant in helping pupils like yourself. There were some intolerant / ignorant teachers there at the time, a few of whom you were unfortunate to encounter. I am pleased that you feel I was not one of those and that you could then and can now count on me to lend a sympathetic and hopefully understanding ear.
May your blog go viral!
By the way - in case you are wondering - the reference to "Escape Capsule 3" in the poem was about the classroom where Steve taught me English in my first year at Secondary School (E3).