What was your journey into becoming a teacher at Back Mountain School?
I was a primary school teacher for nine years in NSW. Due to personal reasons, I moved to Canberra. I had a degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education. So, when I saw a job opening for a special needs education at Black Mountain School, I applied for it. Although I didn’t have a special needs degree, my younger sister has special needs. I had also developed an interest in helping students with additional needs in mainstream schooling. The school required a teacher to work with students with high and complex needs, this gave me an opportunity to understand the diversity of the student population. I loved that whole experience and thought ‘This is fabulous, how great are these guys?’ and have been here ever since.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
There were a few factors that bought me to where I am today. My kindergarten teacher was a wonderful lady. I remember thinking ‘this is what I want to be when I grow up’. As I was growing up, I deviated between becoming a teacher and an artist. When I was in high school, I was bullied quite badly, and when I was older I empathised with younger students who were being bullied. I asked my art teacher for permission to start an Arts class over lunchtime for the students who were being bullied. So, I had a classroom and as a senior student I would have all these year 7s and 8s coming to my class during lunchtime just to be off the playground. So, I created this safe space for the younger students and we did art lessons. I loved that experience and I’m certain that this is what I was meant to be.
How does a normal day start, and what activities do you do?
We normally start our day by check-in. This includes identifying what day of the week it is, what is the weather and what is required to engage in learning for the day. The idea is to help students learn about the outside environment, and to increase independence and organisation skills. Then we look at how students are feeling and connect this to individual’s socio-emotional learning. Students first identify their emotions, then if they are experiencing negative emotions that decrease engagement in learning they choose strategies using a toolbox that contains tools that we can use to feel better. For example, ‘I’m ok, take a break, walk away and give space’ are some of the strategies students can use. They are all on symbols and have access to them throughout the school. So, they will use them whenever they need to.
After that, the kids would do health hustle, where everyone engages in 15 minutes of dancing or active movements. Then we start our first session focused on literacy and numeracy, students also engage in sports and electives, giving them an opportunity to try different areas of work or study.
What is one piece of work that you are most proud of?
Communication and writing is one of the strategic directions in the school. So as part of that in my class we are currently writing a novel. Although I’m writing, it’s all their ideas, contributions and feedback that drives the content. When we finish writing I will be giving them a chapter each to do their illustrations. These types of activities provide them with a sense of ownership and pride in their work. Although this is a long-term project, among a lot of other things, this is a piece of work that I am very proud to see coming together.
What is most rewarding about being a teacher?
The relationship that I build with the students and seeing them coming out their shell is the most rewarding thing. With the students who have autism, anxiety or minimal communication skills, when I see them laugh and start to improve their communication or say something funny unexpectedly it brings so much joy.
We also have some quite verbal students here and teaching them how to communicate with the less verbal students and see them going the extra mile to learn how to communicate in different ways and build a friendship is amazing.
Best piece of teaching advice that you would like to share?
Make the learning purposeful. Ask yourself the questions, why are you doing this? What is the end product? Where do we want the students to be? Do backward mapping. These students have a certain amount of time until they leave school. So it’s important to provide them with skills and tools to communicate, be confident in their own abilities and achieve the goals they have identified for when they leave school.