I got involved in special needs by chance. I’d gained a BA Hons degree in textile design and then taught in a mainstream art design college in Blackburn, Lancashire, before relocating to Lancaster. I got a post at Beaumont College as an art tutor although the advert did not indicate it was for special needs. When I found out at my interview, the principal said it would either “be my bag” or I’d not return. I stayed! I began teaching creative arts, promoting a healthy learning environment and then used my art design background to include forest school, media and interactive and access technology.
I teach students aged 19-24 for half a week and spend the rest in a curriculum management role focusing on the timetable, ensuring our curriculum remains accessible and innovative, and developing a team of teaching and learning support around that - besides wedging in an MA in special needs education paid for by the college but done in my own time. Most of our students stay for three years, with a few staying on up to five years.
I teach mainly media, plus movement and mindfulness that encourages relaxation and create quiet times within an often busy, fraught environment of comings and goings. I help students learn to express how they feel . . . are they happy, sad, anxious...? Many students use visual timetables such as symbolic guides to find out what is happening next. We get out into the local community to develop their tolerance of going into town, catching a bus, taking photos of buildings and then bringing the photos back to college, uploading them on a computer, playing around with digital effects, and maybe making an installation - it’s about finding out what appeals to each individual. They are encouraged to negotiate, discuss and make choices.
I help students develop coping strategies to access the towns and busy, unpredictable places. They might pick out a cafe where they feel comfortable and know where they like to sit and order their favourite food - it’s all about developing essential lifelong skills while at college, including meeting their own dietary, personal care and medication needs (such as staying on top of epilepsy).
I loved the challenge of finding the right strategies to motivate each student - you constantly have to adapt. Rather than following the same lesson plan for everyone, you often need to create up to seven or eight separate plans depending on class size to suit individuals. Some will first want to go outside into our extended grounds, some prefer a good work-out on a bike before coming in to paint, while others are happy sitting on a favourite blanket painting in their own set space or working at a computer.
Yes, it’s in the ability to express your thoughts, feelings and sensory needs using different media - eg painting, acting, dance and performance - many students like to work outside and be creative with tree branches and stones, bring them into class and maybe link their creations with poetry.
I get in about 8.15 am, and first check out what our students have experienced since leaving college the day before - we discuss any issues or tensions arising at home, how they felt when they got up this morning, what mood they’re in. They may have been caught in very slow traffic or not had breakfast - all this needs unpicking before they reach class. By 9.30 am I’ve also tapped into our area coordinators and day team managers, finding out if certain students need extra support - they may need to go to a relaxation room or sit in our restaurant and have a bit of extra breakfast. Then I teach to 12.30, have a lunch break and carry on till 3.15 pm, finally leaving around 5 pm. Some students prefer to work outdoors or gravitate to a comfy sofa in a corridor where their work is brought to them, or just go for a walk and then return to class.
Some students are not autistic but lack sensory communication skills - so we focus on basic skills like tolerance, anticipation, holding eye gaze and vocalisation, using a sensory program to help them develop self-awareness of their own bodies in a particular space. Some learners totally rely on this one-to-one support to access their curriculum.
Last week one student showed quite high levels of stress and found it hard to access the curriculum. We put that work to one side and through occupational and language therapy came up with a sensory passport itemising sensory and diet needs and a range of activities to ease their difficulties. The approach seems to be working; the student is now more accepting of new activities, people and places - and the passport is used both in college and by the student’s parents at home. I also met up for a twice-termly, full-day meeting with other regional colleges in our teaching, learning and assessment regional observation group to exchange best practice ideas and act as critical friends.
Developing the independent lifestyle pathway with colleagues, building up strong links with feeder schools to support the transition to the college, and organising taster days and a person-centred curriculum.
Being able to give a lot of yourself emotionally and mentally - it’s difficult to switch off when you get home, you live and breathe it. You are always seeking that next cutting-edge way of making your teaching sessions innovative. You need patience and understanding and to see each learner as an individual, plus a strong desire for continuing professional development to heighten your skills. Being a really good team player working within a multi-disciplinary team and knowing which person to go to solve specific issues.
Besides a degree, you need a PGCE focusing on special needs. Ensure you take up a range of placements in different settings during your studies to show you where your strengths lie. You also need a good general understanding of special educational needs and how to support learners wanting to access mainstream places. In addition, I have gained various teaching and autism strategy qualifications/education MA modules.
It’s going into a fascinating job that just keeps on giving.