Susan kindly asked me to write about the links between my special needs teaching to my writing and the ways my writing comes into play within the classroom. The answer seemed simple to me initially, but after rewriting and editing my response, its not as straightforward to explain as I’d first thought.
Looking back – I have always been a writer and always been a teacher – but never had given those labels much credence. On the surface, I have come to writing relatively recently. I left a comfortable HR role to seek – for a year – my fame and fortune as a writer. That was three years ago and whilst I have enjoyed some successes, I’m far from fame and alot further away from fortune than I’d like. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and its such a pity you can only see things clearly from that vantage point! Looking back over my adult life, I’ve always written; in some form or another and its only now that I have given it a focus and have goals attached to it.
My first degree was in education and although I worked as a teacher sporadically in the first few years of graduating, travel and family life veered me into other career paths, opportunities and more study. Nestled amongst my checkered work history lays the theme of helping others to achieve. Within teaching, hospitality, Human Resources and writing, I’ve found a way to reach others at their level and find ways to enrich and boost their environment and perceptions. Within my first degree, I had taken a few electives in special needs teaching with the focus on how movement and drama assisted in students accessing he curriculum in other than mainstream ways. Something clicked for me within those electives and I found myself seeking roles which ultimately had me working with the disadvantaged sectors within society.
Having now come the full career circle, my current role is a teacher within Integrated Support Services; which in laymans terms means I am a special needs educator. I am also a mum of two busy junior school kids, a scouting leader, teach karate and attempt to write somewhere in the midst of the chaos.
Strong relationships built on mutual trust and the creation of safety are paramount to both special needs teaching and writing within a community. Editing skills coupled with positive reinforcement plays a crucial role within writing and teaching. A new piece of writing – be it from a student or a fellow author, is entrusted to the reviewer with anxiety and trepidation. The way it is handled and the development of feedback to the writer and student determines the level of trust, self confidence and future success of the relationship within this context. Both students and writers need to feel confident and safe to express themselves within a new genre/environment; to learn and build on the skills they have already mastered.
Some of the qualities of a special needs teacher which are relevant to writing include:
Being patient with the knowledge that small consistent steps builds lifelong knowledge, rather than huge leaps and bounds. (which runs the risk of injury and fear) to paraphrase a great quote – “write a little,but write often.”
Providing an environment which nurtures growth – as a teacher, students need to feel welcome, loved and safe. Characters have the same needs; as does the writing spirit within you.
Creation Teachers of any type need to be able to create learning experiences and resources to support it out of thin air and at the drop of a hat. As a special needs teacher, I will need to extend a focus activity or theme with a specific student if it is something that has grasped their attention. Similarly, writers create plotlines, settings and whole worlds. I use my impromptu storytelling skills within reading time in the classroom, in order to connect with students and capture their imagination. Very often the story within the book being ‘read’ bears little resemblance to the story being elaborated on in the classroom – particularly if robots, aliens and dinosaurs are required to appear every second page.
Understanding motivation. A special needs teacher is required to understand the triggers for individual students and have strategies to build or refocus those reactions. A writer needs to understand the motivations for characters and how to focus those into the plot, strategically placing them in the best position to move the story along.
Maximise the strengths. Just as a special needs teacher sees their students individual strengths and looks for ways to maximise these, a writer needs to be aware of their own strengths and ways to maximise these.
Beware the Dark Hole. Special needs teaching can be emotionally draining and challenging mentally and physically. Ask any writer on the 30th of November how their NANO went, and you can be assured you’ll get a similar reply. Depression is a steady partner for both special needs teachers and writers for similar reasons. Both can have a belief that what they are doing has not or will not change anything. It’s often difficult to see the small seeds which are sown along the way. Some of these bloom years afterwards or are deeply entrenched ; but sadly the writer or teacher are not aware of the impact they made. It is here that a liberal sprinkling of belief and trust is required.
Resilience. Both special needs teachers and writers need to be resilient. There are plenty of hard knocks along the pathway; coupled with the barriers society throws up, its not likely to be an easy wander through the literary or educational meadows.
Celebrate Small Wins – Have Big Goals Writers and special needs teachers need to reach for the stars and celebrate every inch of progress as they are hard earnt.
The most prevalent link I can draw to my writing from my mad life would be my characters. Most people would describe me as an upbeat, positive person and are therefore quite shocked when they read some of my short stories. Although not pigeon holed, I tend to write darker themes within speculative fiction or mythical urban realism and unafraid to spill a little blood. I don’t go out to write about the disturbed, dangerous or sadistic. Certainly they are not drawn on real people I have met or worked with. Stories tend to weave themselves around my fingers at the keyboard, whilst characters whisper to me in my dreams. At first I resisted, but came to the realisation that these characters were not black and white, pure evil or pure good; but rather took on shades with their own motivations for their actions. After digging deeply, I often found my characters desperate to share their own pain from mistreatment and misunderstanding from society. Its probably through my positive attitude that I believe that every character has the capacity for redemption and that they seek something higher than their present existence. A key belief for a special needs teacher is that every student has the capability to achieve.
Special needs teaching requires a patient, non judgemental position to listen, not to react; and to follow pre determined action plans based on the individual. I can draw strong links with this skill to that of fleshing out characters. I work with a variety of questions or situations when ‘meeting’ a new character as I write. Its often difficult to keep the writers ego off the page and allow the character to express themselves freely. Many writers see themselves as Gods of their own universes, dictating to characters and settings. Many teachers view their classes and students similarly. Though my experience, this approach has never worked for me – either in writing or within the classroom. Just as my pedagogy is based on the contstructivist and connectivist ideals, so too are my beliefs with characters.
As a special needs teacher, you are committed to being a life long learner and have the teaching virus raging in your blood. Any writer who intends to continue on their journey, needs to have a similar passion and commitment to their craft. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to use my storytelling skills within the classroom as it creates a warmer, more exciting environment for students to learn.
Annie is a prolific scribbler of characters, weaver of story lines, champion of the return of the short story and professional cat herder. She is addicted to her coffee machine, chases monkeys other people refer to as her children, attempts to ignore the voices in her head, is a contributing editor on a number of sites and publications and sleeps occasionally.
Start your escape into her worlds at http://annieevett.com
Annie’s stories have been published in many anthologies including those pictured below. See her website for more details.