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Mentoring Teachers Halfway Around the World in Special Education

Editor's Note: Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year—and the only special education teacher recognized with this award—recently had the honor of visiting the Tauri Inclusive School, a rural school outside of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, to observe their groundbreaking work in disability education and mentor their special education teachers. Here, he shares what he observed and learned. 

By guest blogger Brett Bigham

For the poor in Bangladesh, there is no hope of attending school; families struggle to buy rice, let alone pay for tuition. These families live in such poverty that the children must work or spend their days collecting sticks and leaves for their parents to burn for heat. 

Here, children with disabilities are thought of by many as "contagious." There are no schools that will take them, meaning even fewer opportunities for a better life. The poverty is gut wrenching. Seeing emaciated disabled people begging for food is heartbreaking. 

But there is hope here, and you can see it in every room of the Tauri Inclusive School. The founder, Ashfaque-Ul-Kabir, understood that children of poverty deserved better. And so he started a school, but one that would accept all children. An inclusive school where no inclusion existed before.

bangladesh.JPGWhen I arrived at the Tauri school, students lined up in the side yard and sang me a welcome song. Then a girl, dressed in traditional clothes, stood up in front of me and as music blared from the speakers behind me, she performed a beautiful dance to welcome me to her village and her school.  

It was a wonderful performance and as she finished I clapped loudly and told her how much I appreciated her performance. She smiled and bowed. As she walked away Ashfaque told me, "No school would let her in." When I asked why, he told me she was deaf and could not speak. I looked back at her, walking away so self-assuredly, and I smiled because those are the sorts of things we special education teachers dream of for our students. A moment of being appreciated for their skills and talent and being welcomed in the community.

I suddenly realized I was seeing how true inclusion works. 

Here, in this tiny school I had come to share best practices with, they were, in fact, sharing them with me. This school was not set up to integrate special needs children into classrooms when possible. This school was started so special needs kids had a place to learn. For the general education students, they were invited to attend school with their disabled peers. Space would be made in the classroom for the abled here, not the other way around.

What Ashfaque has done is offer education to the general public, but to get that, they must get over their fears of the disabled. And from this, the village has grown a heart. Mothers who used to fear their child would catch autism or Down syndrome from the neighbor, now sit with that family in the school yard and do embroidery work while their children learn together in class. 

In the classrooms, the kids with disabilities sit with their peers. They don't just show up for art class or PE, and they aren't sitting at a back table with an assistant doing something else. They are squished together, and when it's time to run into the playground, they stay squished together in this clump of friends running outside. 

This is a very conservative area of the world with a mixture of women in saris and women in burkas. As I watched a class with three women teachers, Ashfaque called one to us. She looked at the ground, dressed in a dark abaya and hijab. Ashfaque told me he hired teachers to show his students their own value. I was confused at first and thought he was making reference to her conservative Muslim clothing while her co-teachers wore flowered saris and bright colors. But she pulled up her sleeve to reveal that she had no hand. 

In a country where you eat with your hands, there is stigma involved in a missing hand. But here, in this classoom, with the kids all squashed together, this woman was their honored teacher. This was thoughtful inclusion that went beyond the children to also include the staff. 

And suddenly I was feeling a little bit ashamed. I came here with my ideals of best practice, but when was the last time I taught at a school where my students were sitting and laughing with the gen-ed kids all day? When was the last time I worked with a staff member with a visible disability? Had I ever seen a student with special needs be the student chosen to honor a visiting guest by presenting a native dance to a song she could not hear?

I went to Bangladesh thinking I'd be teaching about inclusion. Instead I got schooled. 

And suddenly, I realized, I had come all this way not to teach best practice, but to see it. Head Teacher Marufa Hussain and her staff had done what we in America have failed to do. They did not learn their job from other teachers and then go to an established school where they stepped into an existing program. There was no established anything to follow. But they read books about best practice for kids with special needs, and they built a school around the highest of ideals. 

They didn't make the ideals fit into the school, they made the school to fit the ideals. 

The whole purpose of my trip, to me, pivoted at that moment—after that, I worked with students. I scrunched down into little chairs and read books. I blew bubbles and used my years of knowledge (and the knowledge shared with me from the incredible paraeducators I have had over the years) to observe and look for things you only learn from years in the classroom. All those years of "let's try this" is what they were missing, and that was mostly what I had to offer. 

bangladesh1.pngOne thing I noticed right away was the school valued 1:1 time between the teacher and a singular student. This is best practice because it gives the student that valuable learning time and the teacher that valuable observation time. While this was happening, the paraeducators had the other five kids lined up on chairs waiting their turn for 1:1 time with the teacher. As the most experienced teacher in the room I can tell you that one of the hardest things in the world is get five kids to sit and wait half an hour for their turn. I was quickly able to see that their classroom setup was lacking work stations. This was partially due to lack of resources and a lack of experience. I travelled there with a generous amount of money people had given to spend on the students. I used that to purchase educational toys, games, and equipment so that each paraeducator had the supplies needed to run their own station. 

Because so many of these students were nonverbal, I also noticed a lack of reading to the students. I have always worked under the assumption that many of my students will never give me any feedback as to what they are learning. Because of this, I have seen many special ed classrooms who do not do much group reading. For me however, I love group reading. At the school, the class of younger new students were very hard to keep at a station or interested in what the class was doing. Even though these kids did not speak English, I got a book with animals and read it to them. With each animal I would stop and make the sound, flap my wings, or make a roar. And pretty soon, these non-verbal kids were hanging on my every word, but I made sure that my words were followed by sounds, and movements. I read the book to them twice and by the end I had nine teachers in the room watching me hoot like an owl and flap like an eagle and they saw that all of the kids were spell bound. Managing an entire classroom is one of those things that school just can't teach you. These teachers needed modeling, just as badly as our students do. I always say it is the most important method of teaching and my days at the Tauri School proved that more than ever.

Family visits can be powerful. 

On my last day in Bangladesh, I met with the parents of the kids I'd been working with. The school invited them in, and for the morning I shared what I saw and what I had learned about their children. And in the eyes of those moms and dads I saw the same looks I see at home. Fear. Confusion. Heartache. Hope. So I talked to those things and at the end, one of the moms asked if I would come to their home. Her husband had passed a few months earlier and her son had retreated to bed where he sat forlornly, not drinking, barely eating.  

And as I visited the family I could see how they were all in mourning. And I knew right away what her son needed. I lost my dad when I was young and knew that pain. But there was a worse pain than losing my dad—and that was seeing my mother so brokenhearted. 

And suddenly I knew why he wouldn't get in the car anymore. Because sometimes it meant a cemetery visit where mom was sadder than ever. Mealtimes were no longer a family affair with laughing and smiling, just more sadness, so why get out of bed? 

And so I told mom we were going to take the food for dinner into the fancy living room and have a party. Mom, her sister-in-law, and the four teachers from the school and I all sat around the coffee table, had a soda, and laughed and told funny stories.

And suddenly our young man left his bed and poked his head into the room. He watched for a moment and then sat down next to me on the sofa. The room went silent and I reminded them it was a party! Everyone starting talking and laughing (but carefully watching) as I modeled drinking some soda. And when I handed him his glass he drank it down, and then I ate some food and he had some food. He sat there rocking and looking around the room with all the lights on, and people chatting, and his mother smiling at him for the first time in months, and there was such a strong moment of relief. That it would get better. He smiled.

And I told his mom that she would have to be a better actress and that she must find things to laugh about. Her son had shown us clearly that he would mourn in bed but would leave that behind to see his mother smile.

As I boarded the plane for home that night, it was hard not to evaluate the success of my trip. I always knew it would change me, but I didn't know it would teach me so much. I got to see inclusion at its best. I got to make some deep impacts on several families whose lives I never expected to touch. 

But mostly I felt like I had joined the staff at a really excellent school. And, in a way, I have. In the coming months, we are planning online meetings to share ideas and strategies. And it reminds me of a recent National Network of State Teachers of the Year study in which they had asked State Teachers of the Year what had made them superior educators. The number one answer was that they had had a good mentor. That's something I intend to be.

Connect with Brett, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image taken by the author and used with his permission. 

Quote image ceated on Pablo

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