LIFE STORIES: The Special Needs of Education from a female teacher’s perspective

The Special Needs of Education from a female teacher’s perspective

Sitting in Careers class in an all girls’ school some 15 years ago now, you would hear the usual career choices being bandied about….law, nursing, teaching, the occasional scientist, geologist and one dedicated airline pilot in the mix of 16 year old determined young women… I must admit there were three careers that had always rested at the forefront of my mind as I was growing up…

  1. Solicitor
  2. Teacher
  3. Paediatric nurse

A spectrum of career choices you might say, but one common theme runs through each of these career options… each were centred upon the provision of help to others. By a process of elimination I ruled out becoming a solicitor (highly competitive entrance requirements, and limited opportunity for employment at the end of your three year undergraduate programme at the time I was filling out my applications). So, I was down to two choices. Paediatric nursing – I always had a love for children (I still do) but the thought of seeing a child sick or helpless was going to be something too difficult for me to overcome, so therefore, one path remained, the vocation of teaching.

One thing I have learned in life (not to make this piece about life lessons but a relevant statement nonetheless) is for opportunities to happen, you must create them. A pessimistic careers teacher told me there was such demand for places on a teacher training course, with limited possibility of employment afterwards that I should perhaps reconsider my options. I didn’t see this as an obstacle, but an opportunity to tackle and achieve. I sent away my UCAS (CAO form) with fingers crossed and luckily got accepted to attend interview at my college of choice. The usual questions came up at interview? Why teaching?  How would you challenge inappropriate behaviour? If you could adapt the current curriculum what changes would you make? My answers to those questions still resonate in my head today.

Why teaching? –  As sugar-coated as it may sound, to inspire, to lead and to innovate. I would lead students to develop skills to prepare them for the global market, not just rote learning of facts and figures, but coping mechanisms, inter-personal skills, mindfulness of others and indeed themselves. I would inspire them to pursue each and every ambition no matter how inconceivable it may seem.

After four years of hard work I was ready to head out into the working world and was able to secure a maternity post for the coming year. I continued with temporary contracts for the next three years, but longer term prospects seemed further and further out of reach (perhaps the predictions of that careers teacher weren’t so misguided after all.) What to do next? I would have to upskill in some way, so the most logical next step for me was to broaden my pedagogical skill set.

My final mainstream teaching setting was in a classroom of 30 students with a young girl who was at pre-diagnosis stage of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her areas of challenge silenced her voice, masked her expressionism, her ability to articulate her thoughts and feelings. My job was to enable her to have a voice, to be a catalyst to allow her to achieve.

I always held the belief that if a child is not learning, we should look to the teaching style not to the child, and change the way we approach our teaching. I didn’t possess the requisite skills to assist this young person, therefore it was time for me to return to college to complete a Masters in ASD. I resigned myself to the fact that substitute work was the best I could aim for while completing my Masters degree. However a chance phone-call from a special school in Dublin set me towards the path I am on today. I was being offered a year long post to set up an autism unit, a mammoth task but one I wanted to tackle head on.

One thing I have learned throughout my career is that adaptability is key. And when offered a principalship of a special needs school after three years teaching in that environment, this mantra became all the more evident.

A once male dominated rung on the ladder, principalship brought many new challenges, but at the same time brought great experience and tools to foster and develop into my own managerial style. I have come to realise that I thrive on challenge and look forward to whatever new adventure comes along.

– C.R.  2016