Her mother single-handedly raised Mariana and her six siblings after her father's death. They subsequently received assistance from Darul Ihsan orphanage, which saw Mariana through her studies till she received a diploma in engineering from Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
States the 48-year-old, who has been married for almost 20 years and has two daughters aged 17 and 19, “It was through this experience that I felt I owed the community, and I had this need to give something back.”
In 2008, after having worked as a quantity surveyor for about 10 years, Mariana joined Rainbow Centre as a special needs educator. She is currently a senior learning facilitator at their Yishun Park campus.
Mariana reckons that her perception of individuals with special needs has changed after working with them for a decade. When she used to regard specials needs as a form of impairment at the start, her view is no longer so limited.
“My knowledge about special needs was shallow and narrow in the past... Now, I see individuals with special needs as those who are simply ‘different’.”
She notes, “My knowledge about special needs was shallow and narrow in the past, and limited to only certain disabilities such as blindness, autism, and Down syndrome. Now, I see individuals with special needs as those who are simply ‘different’.”
The educator describes the struggles and frustrations she faces in her journey as a special needs teacher, as well as the joys of being able to impact her students positively.
Hi Mariana! What has your career journey been like so far?
I served in Rainbow Centre’s Early Intervention Programme (EIP) for 10 years, where the students are 2 months to 6 years old and have autism or multiple disabilities. I had always wondered what was next for my students after they graduated from the programme.
Therefore, in January 2019, I made the decision to embark on another journey and joined the Special Education programme, which serves students aged 7 to 18.
What kind of training did you receive to become a special needs teacher?
I attended a training course, organised by the Rainbow Centre Training & Consultancy, and obtained a Certificate in Integrated Childcare Programme. I picked up the skills to manage an integrated classroom setting where students of all abilities can learn together. We also learnt to empathise with some of the challenges that our students face.
For example, I was asked to walk around the premises blindfolded in order to empathise with challenges associated with visual impairment. I was also exposed to the many sensory inputs that children with autism experience daily.
But the most valuable lesson was that integration is more than just normalising education for children with special needs. It is about accepting and valuing people for who they are and their many abilities.
Do special needs teachers need to attend upgrading courses?
Yes, of course! We need to constantly upgrade our skills to keep in step with new and evolved practices and strategies, so that we can give the best to our students.
Subsequently, I obtained other certifications such as the Advanced Diploma in Special Needs (Ngee Ann Polytechnic), Certificate in Autism and Higher Certificate in Autism offered by Autism Resource Centre, and a Diploma in Special Education from NIE. In addition, I also attended several training sessions organised by Rainbow Centre, conducted by its experienced professionals as well as external therapists.
Consequently, I gained more in-depth knowledge on accommodating different styles of learners and incorporating effective methods to meet students’ unique needs.
I have also attended training courses at Brain Gym, Picture Exchange Communication System and learnt story-telling, to further improve the way I teach, too. Special needs teachers can also further upgrade themselves by taking a degree course, such as the Bachelor of Education (Special Education) programme offered by Flinders University in Australia.
What skills do you need in order to work with special needs students?
A calm disposition. The intensity of the classroom environment may create stress for some students. This is often magnified in a situation where students may already be dealing with behavioural and learning issues.
The ability to maintain calm and faces reflect it on our can help reduce the level of stress in the room. By maintaining a calm atmosphere in class, the students will feel safe.
Secondly, adaptability. Teachers must be adaptable as things can be unpredictable. For example, students with autism value consistency and rigidity to a certain extent. A teacher has to be able to anticipate, make adjustments, maintain order and be flexible.
Thirdly, organisation. Students gain a sense of stability from the structure of an orderly atmosphere provided by the teacher. Some common ways that special education teachers organise a classroom include using colour-coordinated folders and baskets and labelling all important areas of the classroom. This helps students to know where to find everything they need, providing a sense of consistency and stability.
“Not all students communicate the same way. Some of them are not verbal and use hand signs or picture systems... This requires our full attention to read the unspoken, and an investment of time to get to know each student well.
What are the rewards of being a special needs teacher?
Seeing my students being engaged during lessons ― you can tell from their smiles or at least the look on their faces. To see them able to follow instruction is a firm indicator that I have done the right thing, that I have communicated in ways that my students can understand. It feels good when they are engaged and responding positively.
Trying to teach students with varied abilities and pitching the lesson at the right level, so that they can follow the class. We need to read our students accurately to make sure that we do not miss out any cues that may suggest that they are disengaged, or want to participate more.
At the same time, not all students communicate the same way. Some of them are not verbal and use hand signs or picture systems, or have a limited vocabulary to express how they feel. This requires our full attention to read the unspoken, and an investment of time to get to know each student well.
Who do you confide in for work-related frustrations?
My fellow teachers. They have been in similar situations, so they would understand what I am going through. They are also the best people to give me advice and workable strategies to deal with the matter.
I also speak to friends who are in mainstream education. Although we do not share the same teaching environment, I find it helpful to speak to them for a more balanced or broader understanding of the matter.
What is a typical day at work like?
Meetings in the morning, followed by setting up the classrooms, which include putting up visuals and preparing lesson materials before my students arrive in the afternoon.
I also set aside pockets of time for last-minute matters. Otherwise, this time will be used to prepare myself ― physically and mentally ― for the lessons ahead.
How do you not get personally affected or involved in the lives of your students?
It can be difficult, as many of us feel a lot for the students. Our care goes beyond the classroom as we see how family support is integral to helping our students thrive. I do get overwhelmed at times and sometimes it is inevitable to bring those feelings home.
Over the years, I have learnt to set clearer boundaries on my contactable hours. When it comes to difficult cases, I will share them with the Rainbow Centre social workers and regularly check in with them and the parents on how the families are coping.
Could you share an experience working with a child with special needs that has left a deep impression on you?
My first student gave me my earliest encounter with autism. He would wander along the perimeters of the classroom, stroking the objects in class and humming to himself. Even though he attended class with his mother, he exhibited much fear and anxiety. He would not allow me to even touch his hand.
I thought he was beyond teachable ― and I was wrong. I had assumed that learning happens naturally and that no one needs too much help with it. But what I learned was that by collaborating with my colleagues from across various disciplines, I implemented various ways to engage my student through his environment and routines. In the end, he was able to self-regulate and eventually acquire some functional skills. Not only did he learn, but I learned so much through him, too.
What is the biggest misconception about special needs teachers?
That our job is easy because of the small numbers of students in the class. In a typical mainstream classroom, there are 30 to 40 students. In a special education programme classroom, there are seven to 15 students, depending on the severity of their disability.
If a mainstream classroom setting already requires the teacher to conduct differentiated teaching to address the diverse styles of their pupils’ learning, what more in a classroom of pupils with special needs? Special needs teachers not only have to address their learning styles, we also have to look into each student’s response towards learning. On top of that, we need to take special note of their impairments and how we can help them access learning despite the limitations.
How do you balance your job with looking after your own family?
Support from my husband and other family members helps in striking a balance between my job demands and looking after my family. They take over some chores when I need to complete unfinished work and lend a listening ear after a hard day.
“Special needs teachers not only have to address their learning styles, we also have to look into each student’s response towards learning… We need to take special note of their impairments and how we can help them access learning despite the limitations.”
How do you de-stress?
I spend time alone, so that I can reflect. I de-stress by cooking, taking walks in the park or watching TV. I also don’t like to dwell on negative events as it stops me from thinking positively. A good sleep sometimes helps, too!
My biggest fear is… Getting into trouble with the law or being a victim of crime.
If I had a whole day to myself, I would...Pamper myself! Go for a spa treatment, and get a massage and facial.
My favourite superpower would be… Elastigirl’s powers ― so I can reach out to anyone and protect them from harm and danger and help whoever is in need.
When things go wrong, I always... Stop, think and re-strategise.
My happy place is... Being on a calm beach with beautiful weather to bask in.
My favourite word is... “Ëmpowerment”. By sharing my knowledge and experiences, I am enabling parents to take positive steps with their children and not feel helpless. This empowers them by putting dignity, control and power back into their lives.
My least favourite word is... “Handicapped”. It focuses on the loss or limitation of opportunities, which hinders us from progressing.
If I weren’t a teacher, I would be… A radio DJ.
I spend my family time... Relaxing at home over movie marathons.
If I could turn back time, I would… Have gone into teaching much earlier in my career!
My proudest achievement so far is… For the EIP graduation in 2012, I wanted to highlight the abilities and skills my students had gained throughout the year. I decided to put up our first-ever play in the graduation ceremony. It was wonderful to see how students with different abilities were all part of the play, with each one shining in their own way.
A secret talent I have is… Dancing (but not anymore since I hurt my knees).
The one person I would love to have dinner with is… Tom Cruise ― I’m inspired by how he overcame his dyslexia.
Photos: Mariana Hassan