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As a student of Singapore public education for over ten years, there are certain perceptions and values about teaching that is ingrained in me. Short teaching experiences during my job in student care Centre and practicum also help to shape my personal pedagogy. However, throughout this course of Teaching and Managing Learners at the Primary Level, it opens my eyes to some fault lines in some of my beliefs and helps to correct them with relevant theories. Besides that, it also reaffirms some of my beliefs and provided skills that further empower me. In this essay, I will talk two most prominent takeaways which are students with special needs and differentiated learners.
My Evolution as a teacher in training
Students with special needs(SSN)
I have not experienced having a SSN in my class throughout my academic life. As a result, I have no opportunity to interact with them and information about them was limited. The only time that I get to interact with them was during my job as a student care teacher where I experience two different cases of special needs students-respectively anger-management and autistic student. They were very disruptive during classes and require much attention from the teachers. Since the teachers are not trained in handling SSNs, the teachers felt helpless and concluded that they are problem students. Lack of understanding from peers also resulted in bullying and exclusion. It leads to their behavior worsening, which was a vicious cycle. This caused me to think whether SSNs should stay in mainstream schools. This experience gives me the impression that SSNs should not be mainstreamed as they have special management problems that regular teachers cannot handle. Also, seeing them getting excluded by their peers make me feel that it may be more beneficial if they remain in special needs schools as it seems harder for them to integrate to the mainstream schools. As a teacher-to-be, it also leads me to be fearful of having SSNs in my class as I am unsure if the training in National Institute of Education (NIE) will adequately prepare me to face the potential challenges or I will feel as helpless.
My perspective changed when during the course, we had a discussion on whether students of special needs should be included in the mainstream education. That is when I realize that students of special needs deserve the right to be mainstreamed and excel in a normal education. How can we be align to the Singapore's Vision of being an inclusive nation that embraces diversity if there is segregation?( Yeo,2012) There is a diverse range of special needs and most are no different from normal students except that they require more support from the teachers and more time to become independent. Having them in the mainstream classroom not only will equip them with the much-required social skills when they enter the workforce, it also allows other students to interact with them and foster respect for differences. As studies have shown, there are several notable benefits to students with special needs who attend mainstream education such as high academic achievement, higher self-esteem and better social skills (National Research Center on Learning Disabilities, 2007).It challenges my perception because more often than not, there are more common between students with or without special needs than difference.
Implications on pedagogy
The next question will be my major concern - what are the classroom management strategies that I can adopt to support the SSNs inside my classroom? During the course, we were introduced to inclusive education which I find highly applicable. There are two main areas in this strategy -social and academic inclusion. Social inclusion is social relationships are built within the classroom such that each student will feel a sense of belonging. Academic inclusion is about the different learning needs of the students are taken into consideration, differentiated instruction strategies are being adopted to cater to the various disabilities. Some inclusion strategies that I may adopt are peer-mediated instruction and interventions, or cooperative learning so as to foster positive connections between the students. (Manning & Butcher, 2013).
Previously, I was overly focused on how to integrate SSNs into the mainstream classrooms. Integration posits that SSNs should adapt to the school and that only teachers who are well-trained in Special Needs Education can manage them well. However, inclusion is based in welcoming diversity and advocates that schools need to have the flexibility to change its curriculum to cater to diverse needs of students. It also recognizes that regular teachers like me play an important role to support SSNs in their learning. Instead of viewing SSNs needs as being 'deficit-driven', we should adopt the view that academic performance and classroom behavior can be improved.
This makes me realize that teaching and inclusion of SSNs in a mainstream school environment is not "specialised" as I thought. This reforms my personal pedagogy as I learn to recognize that all students are active learners regardless if they have special needs. As a teacher, I will first need to be a role model and have the correct perceptions as students are likely to mirror my actions. By treating all students with respect and without bias, I will then be able to build an inclusive and respectful classroom environment that benefits all students.
Of course, attempts to include SSNs can be challenging and I might need to seek the help of external support. However, I no longer focus on the challenges of having SSNs in the classroom. Instead, my personal pedagogy is now based on the notion of having an inclusive classroom where it is a caring community and each individual is an active learner. There are great challenges but certainly greater rewards.
2) Differentiated Learners
Through my academic years, most of my teachers used direct instruction and their teaching styles are similar. Hence, I thought that there is only a one way approach of teaching concepts. After all, I have done well under such mono-dimensional teaching style. For my peers who could not cope with their studies, I simply think that they are either not hardworking enough or just not that smart. I then had some teaching experience in private tuitions where I have had 6 Mathematics students at one point of time. There was no variation in the way I taught the different students and I realize that the way I teach reflects the way I was taught. When their results are released, all students improved tremendously except for one. This surprised me as he was very hardworking and some of my tutees who did not work as hard improved much more than him. Due to the overall success by other students, I never once consider that it might be due to him being not suitable to my teaching style and thought that perhaps he is too nervous during the exams. After I went over to NIE and started my training as a teacher, I was being introduced to different teaching strategies, however, deep inside my heart, I felt that "new" teaching strategies such as differentiated homework are a waste of time and I still prefer using the traditional method of teaching.
During this semester, prior to this course, I have taken another module called Multicultural studies where I learnt that in a diverse classroom, each student has individual complex identities and different realities. As a teacher, we tend to impose our realities upon our students and the dire result is that our students are essentialized ( Ismail, 2012). This leads to me to question that perhaps what I perceived as the best teaching style may not be suitable to every student in my class. Moreover, during the course, I learnt about Dr Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences learning and the different types of learning styles (Visual, Auditory, Tactile and kinestatic). During one of the tutorial, our tutor asks the class to participate in a survey that calculates our intelligence and I realize everyone have different intelligences. Reflecting that back to our educational system, I realize the traditional teaching strategy promotes on only two kinds of intelligence: verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematics and neglects the rest. This is when I realize that each child is unique in his/her own way, in terms of "intellectual profile" and types of learning styles. My preferred way of learning may not be the same as some of them. I then come to a conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and this is true especially in a diverse classroom in multicultural Singapore where children comes from different backgrounds and cultures.
Implications on Pedogogy
My personal pedagogy has been changed to recognizing that as teachers, we need to be flexible and understand that " managing today's diverse classrooms requires the knowledge, skills, and predispositions to work with students from diverse racial, ethnic, language , and social class backgrounds" ( Weinstein, Romana & Mignana, 2011). As stated by Moreno and Abercrombie (2010), we need to understand how to "accommodate instruction so that all children can perform to their full potential". Instruction should start by assuming that every single student are capable of learning and has a personal and unique style of learning where I can discover and build upon (Grant & Sleeter, 2005) .The introduction of differentiated instruction then shed some light on how I can achieve this conducive classroom environment that meet the learning needs of various heterogeneous groups of students.
Ddifferentiated instruction is an umbrella concept that incorporates the use of various teaching strategies( Allan, n.d.) and where lessons are planned with the needs of diverse learners in mind. Some applications that I will adopt are substitute curriculum, differentiated homework and modification of materials. Substitute curriculum provides alternative instructional materials or adapts the curriculum in terms of amount of content based on different learning needs, ensuring that students will not feel left out when they could not keep up with the general pace. The use of differentiated homework allows weaker students to master missing skills, and also extension of content to challenge the stronger students, catering to the different abilities of the class. Modification of materials can also support the learning of students, especially those with special needs. For example , for students with visual impairment, we can have large print materials, for tactile learners, we can make use of concrete materials to bring across the abstract concepts of Mathematics and also we can provide simplified version of extra notes for students who could not keep up with their work. It may be also useful to first find out the learning profiles, the interests and prior knowledge of the students through surveys or former teachers so as to better plan the instruction curriculum for the class.
All in all, I feel that as present educators, we must avoid assuming homogeneity of our students' abilities ( Grant & Sleeter, 2005). With the increase of immigrants in Singapore and more volatile global traffic, the diversity is reflected within our classrooms and hence, as we assumed the role of a teacher, we need to create a classroom environment that maximizes learning for each student. It is a complicated yet essential process to be mindful of the various needs of the class as a whole, ranging from different intelligence, learning styles to different special needs, ensuring every student's potential is nurtured and maximized.
Throughout the course, I learnt that in order to be an effective teacher, it requires us to have a comprehensive understanding of why and what are we doing in our classrooms. In the past, I was too focused on myself where I worry about what are the challenges I may face and what is the teaching style that is most convenient to me. However, I realized that as we assume the role of a teacher, we need to steer from being me-centered to student-centered. We need to be mindful of what are the educational aims we have for our students and recognizing their learning needs. All in all, I felt that this course has been thought-provoking and helps me grow professionally. It reminds me of the need to constantly reflect upon our personal pedagogy and ensure that it is up-to-date such that it is aware of current challenges and new changes. Of course, my evolution of teacher will not end here and there will be new discovery of ideas and strategies in the future. However, I believe with an open heart and willingness to learn, I will definitely have a well-thought out personal pedagogy that equips me to be a good teacher.