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Just how special are you?

Gervase Phinn identifies the qualities that make a good teacher of pupils with special needs.

On the first day of the new term I addressed a conference on "the realities of special needs". The organiser in her letter of invitation said: "Our mood is likely to be sombre one. I hope therefore you will be able to raise our spirits with your talk."

I could well understand why. SEN teachers do not receive the recognition or the respect often accorded to colleagues who teach the more able. Their pupils do not appear high in the league tables or feature in the lists of successful university entrants in school prospectuses. Progress for their pupils is often slow and their comparable achievements low.

As I prepared my talk: "What Makes a Good Teacher of SEN Pupils?" I looked through the notes of visits to SEN departments and the inspection reports I had written over the years. But it was only when I listed the names of some outstanding teachers of SEN pupils who I had come across, that I got to grips with the question. I realised they had certain qualities in common. Here are what I consider to be the top ten keys to their success.

Understanding It is difficult for the academically successful to conceive in what ways pupils who struggle with learning and school work, live with the knowledge of their deficiencies. Some become frightened by their condition and desperately seek a release from it. Others become apathetic, frustrated or even aggressive.

The good teacher makes a real effort to understand. She knows her pupils well, acknowledges that they develop at different rates and tailors the work to their needs. She does not repeatedly respond to their efforts in negative ways, for she knows this will lead to frustration and failure.

Encouragement Pupils with special educational needs often lack confidence in their own abilities and underestimate the value and quality of their classroom contributions. They are frequently wary of committing themselves to the trust necessary to share their knowledge, opinions and personal experiences. The axiomatic needs restating. The teach-er's first task is to display an interest in the pupils and their lives, encouraging an exchange of information and ideas however trivial or mundane they may seem.

The good teacher involves all pupils in the group, offering encouragement for them to speak their minds and find more exact ways of saying things, but not insisting on someone speaking when he or she does not wish to. Frequently, reticent pupils are encouraged to speak and to write at length because their teacher shows interest in what they have to say. Good teachers are not sparing in their encouragement, realising that we all like to be told that we are appreciated and admired and that our efforts are recognised.

Sensitivity The good teacher knows that all pupils need to feel success and that they thrive on recognition. She builds on what the pupils already know and can do, then advises, encourages, sensitively intervenes, challenges, offers experiences which allow them to develop intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, guiding each pupil along his or her own individual road to personal achievement and success.

Expectation There are teachers convinced that some pupils can only make very limited progress and never achieve a great deal. They believe that such pupils, often from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, never discuss things with their parents, that they rarely go anywhere or see anything and that their language is lacking in certain essential features.

The good teacher quickly realises that SEN pupils, just as much as their more able peers, are capable of long periods of concentration, do have keen insights into human nature and can talk and write with humour, directness and imagination when the work is appropriate and challenging and when expectations are high.

Respect Too often we hear of SEN pupils described in terms of their inadequacies and problems. The good teacher begins by looking for what her pupils can do rather than what they cannot, she believes that all pupils matter and, however difficult, disruptive and damaged, they are deserving of her attention. She recognises that all pupils bring strengths to the classroom and that they all have some skill, knowledge or expertise.

The sympathetic teacher knows that for the real sources of a child's life - her int-erests, values and culture - to be tapped, there must be respect. A teacher-pupil relationship which offers the understanding and respect of a trusted adult is the foundation for improvement and success.

Challenge For some SEN pupils the experience of school is frustrating and difficult; it is alien to their real interests, an imposition which gives neither pleasure nor reward but rather an experience which makes them aware of their own inadequacies. The good teacher does not provide a narrow diet of limited comprehension cards, maths worksheets, tedious number and language exercises which frequently require only a one-word response.

She provides a balanced, appropriate and challenging programme of activities through differentiated tasks. She does not assume that basic skills must be mastered before a pupil can progress to more interesting and demanding work.

Her pupils see the drama groups when they perform in school, work with visiting poets, go on theatre trips and visit the school library. They are surrounded by bright, glossy-backed paperbacks by good modern writers and a variety of appropriate non-fiction material, have access to the word-processing and CD-Rom facilities, hear poems and stories well read and are encouraged to discuss and read them for themselves.

Creativity The good teacher is constantly enthusiastic and excited by what she is doing. She is open-minded, optimistic and creative with wide intellectual interests. She modifies her views and approaches, continually learning from experience and from the ideas of others. She captures her pupils' imagination, appeals to their sense of humour, catches their interest and makes the work interesting and relevant to their own experiences.

Planning and organisation Good classroom practice is underpinned by clear, reasoned and practical documentation. The policy and schemes of work and the various processes and procedures, such as those relating to statemented pupils, are in place and fully understood by all staff within the school. Useful checklists for staff to monitor regularly their own practice and their pupils' progress and attainment are in place and reviewed regularly.

Effective classroom management There is more to classroom management than the creation of a quiet, purposeful and well-ordered learning environment. The good teacher is clear and consistent in the management of her pupils. She deals firmly and fairly with, but does not over-react to, minor indiscretions for she is aware of how frustration, restlessness and emotional volatility can lead to inattention and erratic behaviour.

In dealing with misbehaviour she does so calmly and plainly, assessing as much for the class as for the pupil concerned, the seriousness of the action. SEN pupils need the security of fully understanding what is required of them by their teacher and the part she will play in the work to be done. The good teacher offers a well-structured and effectively-managed classroom environment, but also aims to develop a degree of independence in her pupils and create some element of choice in the work they undertake. She adjusts to the changing moods and needs of her pupils, sometimes teaching the class as a whole, sometimes encouraging the pupils to work in pairs or small groups.

A sense of humour Good teachers have a well-developed sense of humour. It is an attribute of great significance in the work they undertake. Part of the joy of teaching is the real sense of shared enjoyment felt by teachers and their pupils, the opportunity to smile.

Recently I was asked to read one of my own stories to a group of Year 7 less able pupils. I read with great enthusiasm, using a range of voices and facial expressions, dramatising the reading to capture the attention of the audience. The pupils listened with rapt attention. Wishing to encourage a response about aspects of the story, I turned to a very interested-looking boy at the front desk. "Would you tell me what you are thinking?" I asked smiling.

"Oh," he sighed casually, "I was just thinking how time drags when you're bored."

Gervase Phinn is principal adviser with North Yorkshire Council.

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