I have always been passionate about working with students with disabilities. Back in 2002 at the age of 18, I worked as a Teacher’s Assistant at a school in a poor neighborhood in London. The school was a secondary school for students between the ages of 11 and 16, and predominantly attended by typically developing students (by typically developing I mean students who progress through defined developmental stages within the time frame identified by scientists). The school had a small department, an Inclusion department, which offered instruction to students with disabilities in the classroom and during one-to-one pull out sessions.
I was assigned to the Inclusion department in the role of Inclusive Support Assistant. As an Inclusive Support Assistant, I provided instruction in class and during one-to-one sessions. I found the role exhilarating and extremely rewarding. I enjoyed learning how to teach phonics and devising new ways to teach students who were having a tough time. I remember one student, we will call him Simon. He was a small boy who was uncomfortable being in the classroom, he especially hated math. When his math teacher started speaking he became fidgety and anxious. At 12 years old Simon was already fed up with life. The situation at home was difficult and unstable. His brother had also developed a bad reputation with his teachers.
As the teacher wrote on the blackboard behind her, you could tell Simon just wanted the ground to open up and suck him in. “I can’t do it,” he complained. Simon just didn’t understand why he was being forced to endure this hell. Why was he being forced to do math? Simon was resistant to having me around; he didn’t want help from an assistant. He didn’t want to be singled out as being “Special Needs.”
But there was one thing that Simon knew he could do. He was a talented artist, “I love drawing,” he told me, his whole face lighting up. “I’ve always loved art.” Simon felt empowered by his talent- knowing that he could draw better than the other students made him feel special in a good way.
And so, with my knowledge that he was an artist, I taught Simon how to make a bar graph using play dough. Simon jumped at the chance to be creative. His little fingers worked away at the dough and he formed bars of varying colors. I watched with pride as my student was visibly engaged in math. At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing, but as I moved through my studies I realized I had tapped into a key element of teaching. Instruction should be tailored to students’ learning styles.
Through my work with Simon, I learned that how a student learns is just as important as what a student learns, and as teachers it is our responsibility to discover how a student learns.