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“Why special needs?”, “Isn’t it very tough?”, “You must be very patient!”, “Do you have a calling for this?”, “Wow, you are so noble!”

These are just some of the common reactions I get when I tell people I have been a special education teacher in Singapore for more than eight years. While some of these may be reasons why some of my peers around the world enter the field of special needs, I don’t exactly call myself a patient person, nor do I believe that working with people with special needs is my life’s purpose.

In fact, I have many qualities that do not fit the stereotype of a special education teacher – I am not exceptionally hardworking, my results in school were average, I like to be a fashionista, and much more.

Teacher, therapist or…?

Special Needs Educator
Image Source: Jacklyn Ng

As a special needs educator, there are many challenges. For example, special needs educators are generally less recognized for their work. We sometimes find ourselves torn between identifying ourselves as formal school educators, therapists or other professionals.

I often get told that educators in the special needs field have it easier because we have shorter working hours, and need not be involved in activities like setting exam papers or grading assignments. While some of us may have shorter official hours, we are just like other educators because our work often continues outside the classroom.

Besides, there are special schools that cater to students who go through the mainstream curriculum too, so setting papers and grading assignments are very much part of the job.

The work of special needs educators also goes beyond the preparation of the teaching materials, lesson planning and teaching.

Providing emotional support, assessing students’ learning styles with regard to their needs, understanding families’ environments as well as behavioural management are just some of the major parts of our work.

These areas are generally less recognized and underestimated. However, there have been more efforts to provide timely support for special needs educators in recent years.

Patience, resilience, and failure

Special Needs Educator
Image Source: Jacklyn Ng

Many have also told me that they would not teach students with special needs because they are not patient people. While patience is an awesome virtue to have as an educator, I felt that resilience is more crucial and often overlooked.

Working with students with special needs is tough, and failure can hit you harder because it is an environment which requires one to be alert, composed and flexible to manage crises.

We often work in an intense environment. This is when resilience is crucial.

We cannot wait patiently for a student to get over his meltdown if he is hurting himself. We have to resolve the crisis quickly so that everyone, including teachers, is safe.

We also cannot beat ourselves up every time we fail. We have to care and love ourselves – work hard and rest hard. We have to choose to be resilient every single day.

So why did I still choose to be a special education teacher?

1. Working with people with special needs keeps me grounded

Special Needs Educator
Image Source: Jacklyn Ng

The best part of working with people with special needs is that they are always true to themselves.

They are often so real that being with them feels almost therapeutic for me as a neurotypical person.

Over the years, there have been times I chased the wind and forgot the person I am. Working with my students with special needs reminded me of my childhood, my dreams, aspirations, and my beginnings.

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My inner compass gets stronger the more I interact with them because they live in the moment, in the here and now, and I learn to do the same too.

From them, I have learned to be true to myself, to live up to my dreams, and to be the best version of myself.

Would I learn this somewhere else? Perhaps. But definitely not in the same way.

2. I learn something new every day as a special education teacher

Special Needs Educator
Image Source: Jacklyn Ng

I’ve always liked this quote by an autistic professor of special education, Dr Stephen Shore. He said: “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”

Up to this day, I remain fascinated by my students with autism. Every single day, I get to learn something new about them, and about autism.

Each student is unique in their own way, and I learn new things about autism with every individual I meet.

Working with people with special needs involves interacting with human beings, instead of looking at excel files and presentation slides.

With time and different life experiences, my students change in their habits, personalities, behaviours, thinking, and emotions. The beautiful thing is, this change is never linear.

Imagine the sparks we can create when interacting with different students with autism at different stages of their lives, and the millions of autism surprises that may come our way;

I can never be bored!

3. I see the world in a different (and better) way

Special Needs Educator
Image Source: Jacklyn Ng

In my eight years as a special needs educator, I have developed a heightened awareness of my own physical world. I learned to be more aware of physical sensorial experiences, to not take for granted how we can learn skills implicitly on our own, as well as to count my blessings and see beauty in every situation.

If I were not a special needs educator, I would never have known that a simple thing like keeping our five senses in a balanced state (called sensorial integration) keeps us regulated, and how the dysregulation of one sense can have a greater impact on us than we’d expect.

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I’ve learned to identify and see small successes along the way, giving my students more credit and celebrating their achievements to the fullest because we have more blessings than we know.

Why am I a special needs educator? My answer: Why not?

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Top Image: Image Source: Jacklyn Ng