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It Takes A Special Village

29 Nov 2019

As the year draws to a close, three Principals look back at their journey in leading special education schools, and share their daily inspiration to keep going in the face of challenges.

A Day in the Life of a SPED Educator


From left, teachers Ms Kamla Devi and Mr Caleb Khoo, Mr Gerard Vaz, Principal and Mr Ke Wei Wen, Job Coach. The team of staff that held strong the belief of possibilities for Samantha, a student.

Mr Gerard Vas, MINDS-Fernvale Gardens School

Twenty-three years after I entered the field of Special Education, my students continue to inspire me. Their innocence, their openness to being taught and their enjoyment of school, never fail to move me.

I started out as a Special Education teacher in 1996. As a young teacher, I remember the sense of achievement both my students and I would feel when they were able to overcome challenges. It could be something like putting on socks on their own, a skill we take for granted. It was all about knowing how the task is performed, breaking it into steps and matching it to the skill set that the student has and gradually moving them up a level till they are independent.

Every teacher, who has chosen this path as a SPED teacher knows full well the great responsibility to educate and reach out to every student under their charge. The teacher’s job is to spare no effort in getting to know their students and find ways and means to help them better understand the subject matter. Every teacher tries to read the emotions of every student, find out what may be affecting them and look at ways to approach the student so that they are comfortable and ready to learn. It is about building a connection with every student so that there is a level of trust between teacher and student. In reality, this connection goes beyond the student, as teachers also keep in close contact with caregivers, so that they can work together to set goals for the students, and help them towards achieving those goals.

Our graduating student Samantha is a good example of the difference teachers’ dedication can make. Samantha was a shy girl, who would be uncomfortable when there were too many questions asked by adults. In school, she would often hide her face when approached or would face the wall to avoid contact. She also showed a lack of confidence when given new tasks, doing them very slowly while looking anxiously at the adults nearby. However, after the teachers and the job coach worked closely with her parents and together followed up on her goals, Samantha slowly came out of her shell. She is now on a work attachment at a Serviced Suite, and is able to work independently and with confidence. She gets along well with her colleagues.

Her teachers supported her every step of the way.  They encouraged her and gave her many opportunities to stand out. They also used role-play to help her understand the work environment. Samantha is a fine example of how, if teachers hold true to their belief in their students, they can make many good things happen.

In my years of service, I have learned this: We need to believe in the capabilities of our students and together we can help them break down the barriers of getting to where they ought to be.

The Marathon Continues


Mrs Liza Ow with a Special Olympics Gold medallist

Mrs Liza Ow, Tanglin School (APSN)

Little did I know that coming to a special education school would be the beginning of a marathon. I tried my best to do the right thing. I thought the students would enjoy my lessons, and warm to me. But, in the first month, one student showed me his fist, saying “I will punch you if you ask me to do this homework!” Another ran out of the class without a word, while the rest looked at me in dismay as I tried to stay calm. That was the most unforgettable day in my teaching career. But I believed in what I was doing and all the challenges inspired me to make the best of each day with the students.

Then, one day, I received a call. “Hello, Mrs Ow, remember me? I am Jason, the boy who showed you the fist. I was in your class 20 years ago. My grandmother passed away yesterday. She had asked me to call and apologise to you. You made me do homework because it was for my own good.”

The Jason I had known had grown up, and his call was a testimony of my calling.

Some times when we express care and concern for our students, we never know how they might react or respond. However, like in the case of Jason, when we stay positive when the going gets tough, we might have a tremendous long-term impact on the students and everyone around us. Looking on the bright side always seems to help make things better. My years of perseverance have paid off and every student’s journey fuels my passion to uncover their hidden talents, and nurture them to their fullest potential.

As Principal of the school, I wish that all teachers would celebrate and take pride in how far they have come, and be courageous to face the unknown so that students could be nurtured to become valuable and integral members of society. After 30 years in Special Education, I still think that I may not have done enough to tend the soil; to look at every flower and soak in their beauty. But each child’s innocence, gentleness and their trust in me – these are the things that I will always treasure. Let’s judge each day not by the harvest we reap but by the seeds we plant.

Realising Every Child’s Potential

RubyMs Ruby Chiew (far right), invited guests, staff and students from Green House posing with ActiveSG Mascot, NILA.

Ms Ruby Chiew, AWWA School

“I want to change my daughter’s CCA!  How can the school assign her to the soccer CCA?  She is small sized. What if she breaks her leg?” An angry parent made that request in my office.

The next time he was in my office, he said, “OK, my daughter is enjoying the game, let her learn more!” He had just viewed the video of his daughter in action. 

My educational philosophy in running a Special Education School is to look at the child’s abilities, rather than their disabilities, and provide opportunities for their learning and development.  AWWA School caters to students with Multiple Disabilities and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder.  All staff at the school are very passionate and strongly believe in maximising their students’ potential towards independence and being able to assimilate into community life.     

Our Annual Sports’ Day event shows our philosophy in action – to focus on abilities instead of disabilities. It also shows our teachers’ creativity and imagination in adapting the games to suit students’ varying profiles and needs. For example, students who are able to, are encouraged to do the Hurdle Jumps while students in wheelchairs or walkers go around the hurdles.

Another highlight of the event is the competition for ‘best house’. Participants are divided into four ‘houses’ and each house designs a mascot. When the students march in with their mascots, they are greeted by enthusiastic cheers by fellow students, parents and teachers – a sign of the wonderful spirit of sportsmanship and camaraderie that exists in our school.  

The event requires a massive amount of preparation work by our staff. From the logistics, managed by the Administrative staff to the training of our students by the Allied Health Practitioners (AHPs), everyone is fully committed to ensuring that each student feels confident in tackling the sports events, and enjoys the day.

Over the years, parents’ participation has increased and volunteers are returning to help as they want to be part of this meaningful event.

My greatest hope is that all staff will continue to empower our students to thrive in the community. Working with special needs students is not an easy task. I always admire my colleagues’ stamina, their love and passion towards our students and their “never give up” spirit to enhance the quality of their lives. To all colleagues working with special needs students, I say: “Always look at their abilities, believe that they can achieve and provide them with all opportunities to maximise their potential”.