Career Q&A: It’s all about the students
This is a special Career Q&A as it reveals one of those moments when I reached out to someone and said the thing that no one else would say.
Rebecca Wells is a specialist teacher who returned to Postgraduate studies and teaches children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability. Her blog, “The Animated Classroom” (commencing in February) will share and get feedback on ways to encourage creativity and a more lively approach to teaching and learning.
I hope Rebecca’s story encourages you to reflect on the many personal insights she shares about her career journey as an educator committed to enhancing children’s lives with creativity and a diverse approach to learning.
1. Please tell us a little about a day in the working life of Rebecca
I currently teach at a school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability and have a small class of 6 students. My work day begins at 8:15 when I set up my classroom so that specific activities and learning tasks are arranged to align with my students’ work schedules. Each student has an individual learning plan so this has to be done quite strategically and requires a lot of thought and management. Once the students arrive the day instantly becomes very busy. Often parents need to talk with me or warn me about behaviours that have changed or escalated, while my Education Support assistant settles the kids in to quiet activities to transition them into class. For many of these children going to school each day (and then home again) can be unsettling.
The remainder of the day consists of three teaching blocks and any number of activities that are relevant to the students’ needs. Unlike mainstream schooling we have a strong focus on teaching life skills and so in addition to academics we cook regularly, do activities such as learning to dress/undress, brushing teeth, keeping safe, bike riding, doing the laundry, washing dishes and social and play skills. We have a swimming pool on site and so water safety is a strong focus.
I work very closely with my assistant and we are constantly problem solving together how to overcome the many challenges that our students present with. It can be a very physical job as many of our students are not independent with toileting and self-care. Meltdowns, when they occur, can be extreme. Despite that we have a lot of fun with the students and they are delightful to teach and interact with.
The school day finishes at 3pm as many of our students have long trips on the school buses, with some of them travelling up to 2 hours to get home. I de-brief with my assistant about what worked and what didn’t and we discuss what we will be doing the following day. After this we usually have meetings or professional learning to attend or we make resources to assist our students with their learning goals. I usually leave school at about 4:45pm.
2. How does this differ to your career ambitions as a young adolescent?
I wanted to be a librarian. When I became a single mother quite young I decided that I needed a career that would both financially support myself and my daughter and also fit my need to be there for her once she started school. I wouldn’t be able to work weekends or afterschool hours, which is required of librarians, as I had no other support for my child. With this in mind I commenced an Arts Degree at Open University when my daughter was 6 months old. I soon moved across to Monash University to study on campus and while studying I worked at the campus childcare where my daughter attended. Working with children in this environment led to my doing a Primary Diploma of Education once I graduated from my Arts Degree.
3. What was the defining moment that set you on the career path you are on today?
After teaching in mainstream schools for many years I took time off to have a family. In addition to my eldest daughter, who by then was about 16, I now had two other young children, a boy and a girl. My son had always been very different, and at times very difficult, and although my husband (also a teacher) and I absolutely adored him, our life was quite fraught as we tried to negotiate our son’s odd behaviours and routines.
The defining moment that set me on the career path I am now on happened simply because one day I could not cope anymore with one of my son’s meltdowns. I couldn’t understand what he wanted and I was completely exhausted. I was quite possibly a blubbering mess, but I bundled the kids one under each arm and marched down the street to Karen’s house. Our two sons were at kinder together. If she hadn’t been home I don’t know what I would have done; but she was.
Karen settled my kids to playing with her boys and then made me a cup of tea and opened some chocolates. We chatted, and I calmed down, and then she handed me an article from a magazine. “Don’t read it now, if you don’t want. Read it when you are ready.” That article was about having a child with Autism and completely changed my life.
I rang my GP that very afternoon and very soon specialist appointments were made and a diagnosis of Autism followed. I knew also that I would soon be returning to teaching and I thought that the more I knew about ASD the better equipped I would be to assist students with Autism in my own classroom. I enrolled in and completed postgraduate studies in Autism Spectrum Disorder, which led to employment in a Special School and then an Autism Specific School, where I currently teach.
4. Who inspires you both in life and in your career?
I am inspired by my students and their families. Many of the families of these children are under such incredible stress. Some families cannot take their child out in public. They feel that they are judged as being bad parents or that their child’s unpredictable behaviours or self-harming are too severe to be seen in public. They are often sleep deprived and exhausted and as their child grows into adolescence they become unable to manage behaviours as the child outgrows them in strength and size. I am also inspired and motivated by the innate desire within children to learn and by their boundless imaginations. Children often think in terms of “why not?” whereas adults think, “not possible”.
5. What is one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make in your journey to success and career happiness?
I have recently decided to move back to mainstream and will do so next year. I feel that the skills and experiences I have had in special education will be hugely beneficial in mainstream. There are many students with various disabilities in every school and in every classroom and I would like to concentrate on making schooling more accessible for these children. I feel that our education system needs to change to cater for all students, and that at the moment we do well teaching students who are achieving at the expected level, but we are not adequately challenging our more advanced students or those who do not fit the norms of standardised teaching and assessing. We don’t encourage creativity and diversity and I would like to learn and discover more about how to do this.
6. What is one of the best decisions you’ve had to make in your journey to success and career happiness?
I made the decision to go into teaching for all the wrong reasons (security, school holidays to look after my daughter, etc) however it has been the most liberating of careers. I am able to personalise the learning for my students, make the learning real and engaging and am constantly learning myself. I enjoy presenting my students with tasks and challenges and watching them take these opportunities and extend them. Every day is different and I am not confined to an office or just one space. My day consists of time spent in the classroom, out in the yard, or garden, or in the local community. I get to play games, read books, sing songs, do science, cooking, sport etc. I meet the most amazing families and get to spend time with fun, energetic kids.
7. How have these decisions reflected on your personal happiness?
I enjoy being challenged and coming up with solutions to problems and teaching has certainly presented me with many of both! I am always wanting to learn new skills and if costs weren’t so prohibitive would still be undertaking more study to improve my teaching and help my students. I am currently setting up a blog, “The Animated Classroom” (will commence with the new school year) so I can share and get feedback on ways to encourage creativity and a more lively approach to teaching and learning. I want to eliminate the old clerical pen and paper approach to schooling and embrace digital technology and learning beyond the classroom, connecting my students’ learning instantly with their families and the community. I am happiest and most creative when surrounded by nature and I am curious to find out if the same applies to my students and if a more authentic and real learning environment will produce more creative, engaged and happy kids.
8. What advice would you give to someone starting a career in your industry?
Teaching is heavily tied down in bureaucracy and constant demands for productivity and outcomes which change and expand with each successive government. This can handicap teachers and sap the enjoyment and creativity from the profession. When starting out I would suggest graduate teachers research schools to see what is going on in a school before applying for jobs. A good, up to date website, with active student blogs and lots of evidence of interesting student directed activities usually indicates a progressive school with a leadership that has a strong vision. Such a school will enhance your career and opportunities and allow you freedoms to be creative with your teaching. Most importantly, if you are there for the kids, then you have chosen the right career. It’s all about the students.
Thank you Rebecca for taking the time to put pen to paper and share your story with us.