Encountering Special Needs in the English Classroom

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 4th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating!

View the full blog carnival here!

I wrote a blog post about this about a year and a half ago, so longtime readers might be familiar with the story.  This month’s blog carnival topic is about most memorable and special moments in the classroom, so I can’t really think of a better story to tell than to repeat this one and add a few updates to it.  I also submitted this story some time ago to EPIK, and it is now one of the many great stories featured in the School Culture Episode section of their website.

One of the things that have been very frustrating about teaching at my school is how students with disabilities and  learning differences are treated in the classroom. My school is very big (over 1000 students). I only teach the 5th and 6th grades, and out of those classes, I’ve encountered a handful of students with various degrees of learning differences. One of my sixth grade students sits at a desk at the front of the classroom in the corner alone, and he just sleeps or smiles the whole time. He never speaks or participates and is ignored by everyone. Another student is very smart and always speaks to me in English, but has a very hard time staying still. He is constantly out of his seat or distracted by something. All he needs is a little redirection and he’s fine, but he’s never made to do any school work or encouraged to participate in the lesson.

There’s a boy in another class who sits at the front of the classroom, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what to do about him. He never seems to know what’s going on, sleeps, or just does not participate, and he sometimes mocks me. My co-teacher always told me, “He’s slow, don’t worry about him,” and they never make him do the work or call on him in class. The other students call him “crazy” whenever I go over to his desk to help him. One day, I decided it was time to get him to participate in class, and I was determined to get through to him somehow. I knew if I took the time, and let him experience some success in the classroom that it would be beneficial. My plan was just to focus my attention on him for a few class periods to see if I could figure out what he knew, what motivated him, and what I could do to help him be successful. When I’m not leading the class activity, I circle the classroom and check on everyone’s progress. Instead of doing that, I decided I was going to sit next to this student the whole class period and see if I could help him. I figured even if I could just keep him from falling asleep, that it would be a step in the right direction. First, I wanted to learn his name. I pointed to myself and told him my name, and then I pointed to him and he said “John.” I was amazed he had an English name (not many people here have “English names”) , and I had a feeling he would keep surprising me. I pointed back at myself, but stayed silent and he said my name again. We did this back and forth a few times, and he was smiling. Then I started pointing at different pictures in the book and saying what they were. These particular pictures happened to be food. Then, on his own he started to point to things and saying what they were in English. I was impressed! He knew a lot more than I thought. So, I drew a smiley face on his paper to show him he did a good job, and he pointed to it and said “smile.” After that it just got better and better. I encouraged him to raise his hand to repeat words and phrases in class. Everyone praised him and he got so excited. A couple days later I did the same thing, but I let him do more on his own. He actually raised his hand to participate without my prompting. Everyone clapped and cheered for him, and again he was so excited and motivated. It was amazing. He’s really smart, but nobody really gives him a chance, and if he had someone there to help him and encourage him I think he would really thrive in the classroom.

Since this breakthrough over a year ago, I’ve witnessed this student grow and learn so much. He still struggles a lot and I can’t speak for his progress in other classes, but from what I have seen in my English classes he’s improved so much and I’m very excited. The best part is passing my acceptance and tolerance on to my students. The very best moment was when I witnessed my students doing for him what I usually do. There is one very high level English student who sits next to him every day and translates for him. She also helps him write the words and phrases in English. She is constantly encouraging him, and when she has free time after she finishes her work she helps him practice English.  He always has a huge smile on his face!

It’s easy to get discouraged when working with so many students, and sometimes it feels like I’m not really making much of a difference. But as a teacher, it’s not just my job to teach English words and phrases, but also to be a good role model and mentor to my students. By modeling the type of behavior I’d like to see in them, I know I can positively affect some of them so that they can in turn pass along this behavior to other people they encounter in their lives.

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2 Responses to Encountering Special Needs in the English Classroom

  1. Awesome story, funny coincidence that I wrote my post for this ‘blog carnival’ about a very similar situation at my school. It’s so odd to me how the ‘special ed’ kids are treated here in Korea, obviously they all just need a little attention and encouragement.

  2. Rebe says:

    This is so great! I’ve also found it hard to see how the special education students are treated here, so job well done on your part! How rewarding – be proud!

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