Friday, September 5, 2014

Special Education, Indeed!

As a short- and long-term substitute teacher last year, I got a glimpse of what it's like to teach at an international school overseas. Now, as a full-time teacher immersed in the day-to-day life of the school, I see even more similarities and differences between teaching in the U.S. and teaching overseas.

First, I've had quite an adjustment working in a school setting again. My last full-time job, as a lawyer for the U.S. government, was a very solitary job. I was lucky if I saw another human being at work each week. In addition to that, I worked from home most of the work week for four years. I got used to, and enjoyed, working alone and being in charge of only my own work product and quality. Now, I'm in charge of a bunch of rowdy 10th graders, most of whom are boys, and I'm all in their personal and school business (I have to be!). And I see and interact with at least 50 or 60 people each day. Every day, I'm going from one classroom to another, helping the students and interacting with people from the minute I get to school until I leave the campus. I'm tasked with keeping track of what's going on in at least 13 different classes -- and that's not including my own class or non-academic classes -- what those 13 different teachers are doing on a daily basis, and how my students are doing in those classes. It's very, very hectic, even more so than when I taught in the U.S.!

The special education program here is different in terms of eligibility and support for the teachers and students. Many of the students in the program actually do have at least one qualifying disability as it is defined under American law. There are also others who are in the program in part because they are not doing well due to lack of motivation. On the other hand, we also have a few students with mental illnesses for whom our school is definitely not the appropriate setting. They're at our school because their parents don't want the stigma of having a child with a mental disability who really should be in a special school for such children, and because of their connections and power, the school admits their children.

Unlike in the U.S., there are no laws in Thailand mandating an appropriate education for children with special needs. Because of this, I've gotten some resistance from a couple of teachers on providing my students their accommodations, and the only thing that's keeping them from outright refusing is professionalism and my persistent insistence that the students need these accommodations. And the fact that students in the program pay a higher tuition just to receive these services.

Most private and international schools have very little in terms of support for these students. Our school provides more special education services compared to other similarly sized international schools, so many parents send their children to our school. Nevertheless, just like in the U.S., the amount of support for the students and teachers isn't enough for the level of neediness that exists among these students. For example, at the end of the last school year, we lost two science teachers and two special education teachers at the high school, but neither science position was replaced and only one special education position was replaced. So the students are needy, and class sizes have inched up a bit more (still nothing compared to the U.S., though!). Not a good combination.

I've also had to learn to adjust my expectations again. Like I said, I'm with the 10th graders this year. I only have nine students (a tenth student, who has Asperger's Syndrome, left the program because he didn't want to be associated with "special education"), but with each one with the academic capability and emotional maturity of elementary-aged students, it is very difficult. These kids are sweet kids, don't get me wrong, but they're like little puppies that have no discipline or training, even at age 15. The kids here are generally so much more sheltered and coddled, and are more naive than their western peers, so they really need a lot of hand-holding. I have to cajole and plead with them in every little thing they do to keep them going, like I did with my son when he was a toddler. And they are such whiners! Every day, all I hear is, "This is so hard!" "This takes so much time!" or (my favorite yet) "I don't want to carry this book home because it's too heavy." It really tests my patience, and sometimes it's all I can do to keep myself from rolling my eyes or making sarcastic comments (not that they would get it). I also had forgotten what it's like to teach people with such low-level skills, who are so concrete and literal.

On top of that, they're mainstreamed and in regular classes, learning alongside students who are academically advanced, because here, there are not different levels for each subject, such as regular or honors. In the U.S., these types of students would be in some type of vocational training to learn an actual work-related skill so they could support themselves after high school. But here, everyone at these students' socioeconomic level is expected to go to college. That's quite a bit unrealistic when most of them are reading at grade levels below my son and don't understand the most basic math concepts.

Still, teaching here is a lot easier and less emotionally draining than in the U.S. The students are easy to get along with. That's not to say they don't have their moments, but they're nothing compared to American teenagers. We don't have to waste valuable time and energy worrying about behavioral issues. We don't get the sense of dread that we did back home on Sunday nights. It's still a lot of work to be a teacher here, but being able to devote most of one's time and energy to actual teaching helps a lot in boosting morale and changing one's outlook.

That being said, something else I've felt since last year, and feel even more acutely now, is that teachers at international schools, at least in Thailand, don't seem to have as much of an impact and don't seem to make as much of a difference in their students' lives as teachers back in the U.S. Back in the U.S., I had students for whom school was an escape from their home life, and whose teachers literally saved their lives. For those students, having someone care about them and what happened to them mattered. My students here, on the other hand, have completely different life circumstances. Failing a class or school doesn't have as much of an impact on their future as it did for my students in the U.S. The students here would, and could, still continue to live their current lifestyles, with a household staff to help them in every aspect of their lives, because their parents can afford to do so for the rest of these students' lives. One family even said to another special educator that it didn't matter if their child couldn't get into university; once the kid graduated high school, the parents would simply buy a small company for him to run into the ground, and then they would simply keep repeating the cycle over and over again.

And the parents can always "buy" jobs for these students to do. There is a man in his late 20s or early 30s who is obviously cognitively disabled who "works" at the school. He doesn't really do anything and wanders the campus all day long, hanging out with teachers and interrupting their work time (I dread the times he pokes his head into my room and rambles on about nothing, but I'm pretty blunt about not wanting him around). Apparently, he used to be a student in the special needs program at our school, and his father pays his "salary" at the school just to get him out of the house. He doesn't need to work; his portion of the family inheritance is 10 million USD (yes, he has bragged about this). So for some of these students, education doesn't have the huge effect on their futures as it might for many American kids (and likely the poor(er) Thai kids). Rather, education for these students is more of an expectation because of their standing in society (regardless of how they actually did while in school).

On the other hand, I'm also getting an education and learning some interesting lessons myself, especially about the Thai culture and way of thinking, through class discussions and interactions with the students. For example, one of the 10th-grade English classes is reading "Twelve Angry Men." Before starting the play, the teacher (who's American) took a survey among the students about their thinking on various aspects of the American criminal justice system. On the statement that the death penalty should be abolished because it risks punishing the innocent, an overwhelming majority of the students were either neutral or in disagreement with the statement. One student's reasoning for that was it was "okay" if an innocent person was killed because the innocent person would go to Nirvana or that he would have good karma (I'm assuming the student was Buddhist, like most of the students at our school). Most of the students also agreed with the statement that a person of great importance and with a lot of power, such as a politician, should be exempt from jury duty.

In another English class, the students are reading a novel about a family in Nigeria that has a lot of references to political unrest (including a coup), trying to become westernized (such as speaking English with a British accent and the desire to be lighter-skinned), and social classes (including a discussion on poor, young girls marrying older men for their money). You'd think the class would recognize a little bit of their own society and culture in this story, but no, that wasn't the case at all. When the teacher mentioned the coup that took place in the story, and asked how that was similar to Thailand, she was met with blank stares. Outside of class, a few students told me that "it's good to speak English perfectly, with no accent," so as to "fit in" with western society. When I pointed out that they, being Thai, would always stand out in the western world regardless of how well they spoke English, they stared at me for a good five seconds before realizing what I was talking about.

The students here are very accepting of one another. I have a lady-boy student who comes to school in full make-up, with long, polished nails, and always carrying the latest, most expensive handbag money can buy. Yet, he has many friends of both sexes, and is known by all for his sense of fashion. The other day, his math teacher allowed the class a short bathroom break, and he went into the girls' bathroom along with his girlfriends. No one blinked an eye about what he was doing.

So far, it's been an interesting and fascinating, albeit exhausting, experience going back to teaching and teaching at an international school. As time goes on, though, I'm getting more and more used to the job. But it remains to be seen whether or not I'll return for more after this year, whether abroad or back in the U.S.

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