Over a 20-year career, Mdm Siti Anita has learned to appreciate her pupils' 'imperfections' and look for their potential.
"I just wanted to teach children, it didn't matter where, as long as I was able to work with children," explains Mdm Siti Anita Binte Rahmat. Twenty years later, this stalwart teacher at Chaoyang School has built a rich and meaningful career in teaching and nurturing students with special needs.
In 2008 she was one of three recipients of the MOE-NCSS Special Education (SPED) Awards, which recognises SPED teachers who have shown particular passion and commitment to providing an all-rounded education.
A dedicated teacher
Mdm Siti Anita started out as a relief teacher in a primary school for three years. Having a single-minded passion for teaching young children, she decided to take up the challenge of educating children with special needs. Even though she had no prior SPED experience, she applied for a teaching position at Chaoyang School, a school for pupils with mild intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder.
Today Mdm Siti Anita is the Head of Department for Pupil Well-Being; her department oversees the development of the School's Life Skills curriculum. As the Head, she has led two major innovation projects - the Sparkling Loo and the Internet Cafe. These projects gave pupils the opportunity, respectively, to enhance their independent living skills such as personal grooming and hygiene, and be equipped with hospitality and interpersonal skills in a simulated environment. The Internet Cafe project also won an Innovation Award for its outstanding innovation to promote students' learning.
The Sparkling Loo, a specially renovated toilet that provides experiential learning for pupils on personal grooming and hygiene.
Being a SPED teacher is not without its challenges. To better meet the needs of individual pupils, Mdm Siti Anita has to stay flexible in her approach to cater to their different learning styles. As many of the pupils have a short attention span and require more time to understand certain concepts, to help them learn better she has to be creative: using interesting visual aids, hands-on activities and role-playing. She also has to manage behavioural issues in class, such as aggressiveness and defiance.
A pleasant surprise
In close to two decades of teaching, one boy has left a particularly deep impression on Mdm Siti Anita. "In the mid-1990s, I taught a 12-year-old boy who had mild autism and some behavioural management problems such as wanting a lot of attention," she recalls.
To manage his behavioural issues, she worked with his mother and his psychologist, and they came up with a token system. Each time he did something positive, he would be given a token. But if he did something negative, he would be ignored.
Before putting the system to work, the psychologist explained to the boy that for every fixed number of tokens that he collected, he could exchange them for a reward. The psychologist then asked him to think about what he wanted.
The Internet Cafe is a simulated learning environment where pupils pick up real-life skills.
"I can't remember how many tokens it was, but one of the rewards he wanted was to spend 10 minutes with me!" says Mdm Siti Anita, her voice full of emotion. "That was really touching, that he felt that spending time with me was something precious. He worked hard for it too. I never expected that from him!"
This was, after all, a boy who had sometimes thrown things at her during class. The experience taught that while her pupils may not be able to adequately express their feelings, they do appreciate her efforts and she is making a difference in their lives.
It's in the blood
Having worked in SPED for so long, does Mdm Siti Anita see it as a calling?
"Honestly, I don't know," she says, "but two of my siblings are also in teaching." One is teaching in a mainstream school while the other is a lecturer overseas. Coincidentally, her father was also a teacher before he ventured into business.
Reflecting on her career, Mdm Siti Anita observes, "Teaching children with special needs has taught me to see the positive side of things and recognise that there is beauty in imperfection." Beyond her pupils' disabilities is their potential, and that's what she finds great satisfaction in helping them to achieve.