A teacher’s job is never easy because having to shoulder the responsibility of shaping the minds of the next generation, needs a level of commitment that goes beyond just mere duty. 

As teachers far and wide eventually adapted to the forced transformation caused by the global pandemic, a subset of the local education system understandably struggled, as “distanced” learning proved less effective, considering the level of care needed for this particular set of students. 

Special education in the time of COVID-19

“Children with special needs may be going without behavioural treatments they usually receive, which can lead to serious escalations in challenging behaviour and real lack of developmental progress,” said Hjh Noorliah Hj Aspar, Headmistress of Sekolah Rendah Lambak Kanan, Cluster 3 at Jalan 49. 

“Many kids can’t participate independently in online learning, and this is especially true for children with special needs, so their parents need to step up too and provide a lot of supervision,” she added. 

Having been a school leader of an Model Inclusive School (MIS) – schools with the capacity to cater to the needs of special needs students – for more than 10 years, the school head acknowledged how the challenge was not about the teacher’s adaptability to the new status quo. 

Taking into consideration, parents’ access to the necessary tools and internet for online learning and the wide range of different needs of the students; from medical conditions, physical disabilities to communication disorders, distanced learning posed a number of complex issues in regards to special education. 

“The main challenge was to deliver the lesson effectively through the online method. Students were unable to focus and respond well as a two-way communication with some special needs students can be a bit difficult and challenging,” she explained. 

Nevertheless, a solution had to be found, and for Hjh Noorliah’s school, in particular, Home Learning Packages (HLP) were much preferred which were based on the objectives of the students’ Individual Education Plan (IEP). 

“Online learning was implemented but for those students who are in the mild category of special needs,” she continued. 

“The HLP includes more hands-on materials and resources focusing on their manipulation skills, gross and fine motor skills, their daily living skills, art and craft, sensory stimulation activities and CCA such as home videos of simple workouts that they can follow,” she added. 

The plight of a special education teacher

Despite the challenges faced by special needs educators amidst this global pandemic, it is sadly par for the course for most Special Education Needs Assistance (SENA) teachers as catering to students with different abilities is no easy undertaking. 

“I think every teacher came across different challenges when schools were told to close during the height of the pandemic,” said Hjh Siti Zawanah Hj Zakaria, a SENA teacher from Datu Ratna Hj Muhammad Jaafar Primary School in Kiarong, which is also an MIS.

“For us SENA teachers, not being able to see our students is a challenge, not knowing their progress back home is a challenge,” she added. 

She described the day to day life of a SENA teacher as something that requires the individual to be physically and mentally prepared: “You need to expect the unexpected because every day is a new day”. 

With students ranging from mild to severe categories, the SENA teacher of 10 years explained that due to the different conditions of the students, teachers have to be on their toes and ready to “process information immediately because their (the students) moods can turn on a dime”. 

However, Hjh Siti Zawanah admitted that the sometimes-overwhelming commitment of SENA teachers towards their charges is an asset for the students’ growth, both inside and outside the classroom. 

“When we have truly familiarised ourselves with the student, to a point that we know their likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, it’s only then we’ll be able to groom them enough to adapt to life outside of school,” she continued. 

“Obviously, when we see a student taking on a new skill, even if they are basic, like sitting down or reading, we as their teachers feel proud of them and hope for the best once they’ve graduated,” she added.  

“We’d have parents thanking us for helping their children grow. Even though we aren’t expecting anything because it is our duty to help their children, hearing it, we’re grateful for the appreciation,” the SENA teacher went on to say.

Special education throughout the decades, a special calling

Regardless of the immense challenges that come with being a SENA teacher, all of the educators truly believed that the special education system in Brunei Darussalam has improved leaps and bounds compared to two decades ago. 

In the sultanate, the Special Education Policy was declared in 1997. Based on the principles of Inclusive Education, the policy states; 

“All children are able to learn given an appropriate learning environment which can be created with the inclusive school. The inclusive school is one that provides appropriate instruction for children based on their level”. 

For Hjh Ratnawati Hj Mohammad, who has been a SENA teacher since 1998, getting into special education was not just a mere career trajectory, but a “special calling” of sorts, one that stemmed from herself being a mother of a child with Down Syndrome. 

“As a SENA teacher and a mother of an individual with special needs, I can see how different the system is compared to 20 years ago, it (special education) was still a new concept in Brunei, everyone involved was still figuring out how to implement it,” she said. 

She lamented on the system’s growing pains, of trying to build parents’ confidence in the newly established system and of recruiting teachers who were ill-prepared to deliver the best education to students with different abilities. 

“At that point, it was very difficult, parents were afraid of exposing their children to the regular school setting because of all the stigma and misconceptions surrounding individuals with special needs,” she explained.

“Teachers lacked understanding (back then), kicking out the students for being disruptive in class, all in all, the challenges rose from a lack of understanding which has improved over time,” she added. 

Hjh Ratnawati noted that as the system moved from strength to strength over the years, Bruneian parents and teachers started to take note and realise that these individuals have the same rights as others, in education and in obtaining opportunities. 

The pressing issue now however according to the senior SENA teacher was the increasing number of students with different abilities and the lack of individuals willing to enter the field of special education. 

Currently teaching at the Keriam Primary School in Tutong, Hjh Ratnawati has seen the stark increase of students with special needs and shared how 12 years prior the school had 13 students with special needs, compared to the current 55. 

“I feel there are not enough SENA teachers with the rate of increase in the number of students with special needs, and a lot of us are approaching our retirement in four maybe five years so what happens then?” she said.  

“Finding someone who is willing and open to be a SENA teacher, knowing all the challenges and difficulty that comes with it, is hard, but at some point, we have to think about the kids, what will happen to them, who will they go to?” she added. 

“Being a SENA teacher is hard, it really is, it tests your patience, your commitment, but I see it as a blessing and it’s rewarding because you’ll treat these kids like your own, your family and when you see them succeed in life, the feeling is indescribable,” Hjh Ratnawati concluded. 

This article was first published on September 23, 2020 in our Teacher’s Day Edition

The Bruneian | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

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