Joko MacKenna

Two very special students

The challenges of adapting your teaching for 'different' class members

As responsible, professional and caring teachers, it's incumbent on us to understand our students' needs and tailor our teaching methods to those needs as far as possible.

When talking about completely divergent types of classes, changing your style and content is fairly straightforward. Giving colored pencils to a class of lawyers in a legal English class and asking them to draw their favorite monster isn't such a great idea, pedagogically speaking. Neither would asking a group of 11 year olds to have a classroom debate over the ethics of capital punishment.

Plenty of experience

I'm approaching the end of my fourth year doing this job. During that time, I've been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to teach a very wide range of learners. I've taught in an all-boys Bangkok government school in front of 50 howling 7th graders. I've taught groups of doctors, lawyers, civil servants and soldiers. Mostly, for these last three years, I've taught mixed classes of adults with many different kinds of individual students and individual needs.

"A monk, a nun and a bored housewife walk into an English class..." not the set up of a joke; that's my Wednesday and Thursday afternoon pre-intermediate group.

Perhaps the most challenging bit of customization I've needed to perform as a teacher has been my recent experience teaching a couple of remarkable students. These two were mixed in with the typical variety of adults we get here at my Yangon language school, i.e., mostly young adults with a sprinkling of more mature learners. My job would have been easier had they not been in the class; each made the standard work in pairs and discuss communicative approach more challenging. As a result, the successes each of these students had made me feel that much more satisfied as a teacher.

Challenging students

The first was a young Burmese lady, about 18 years old, who happened to have cerebral palsy (CP). As the gentle reader probably knows, CP primarily affects muscle coordination and body movement, not cognitive ability. Those with CP are just as capable of learning a foreign language as any fully-abled person. Her oral coordination, her ability to speak, was significantly impacted, even in her L1.

She communicated by typing onto her iPad, and did so using her toes. As she felt more comfortable on the floor, we pushed the tables out a bit and she sat on a mat between them. Although she didn't speak often, she could speak. On many occasions, I would ask a difficult question to the open class, inviting anyone to answer, and after an awkward silence, no one quite confident enough to speak up, the special needs students would shout out the correct answer in her unique way.

There were other challenges as well. I think it's important to include a certain amount TPR activities in my lesson plan, and whereas I was tempted to forgo them for the sake of one student, it is possible to find ways to include differently-abled students into these games and activities.

Mostly, I assigned her a surrogate to do the physical part, and the other students were always gracious and accommodating in taking on that role. Alas, I only got to teach her for one term, but it was quite rewarding. She plans to study to become a roboticist. She wants to create machines to do the things her body won't let her do.

A common learning difficulty

The second anecdote I'd like to share is my experience teaching a student with an increasingly common learning difficulty: autism. Again, this young man in his late teens was in a class with a dozen other of his peers here in Yangon. And again, similar to CP, autism doesn't necessarily impede one's ability to learn a foreign language. In fact, in his written work, he did very well.

Unfortunately, as conditions on the autism spectrum significantly affect social skills, it was very difficult to match him up with fellow students for pair work. On one occasion, another student actually requested a new partner as this guy wouldn't communicate. He became bored extremely easily. Given a student-centered activity like a worksheet, he just wouldn't do it unless I stood behind him, hovering in a way.

The reason this was so difficult for me personally was that these behaviors reminded me greatly of how the weaker teenage boys at that Bangkok government school used to act. I couldn't tell how much of his behavior was due to his condition and how much was just bad behavior from an impatient youth who probably didn't want to be there in the first place, which isn't a common attitude we find at our relatively expensive private language school.

Ultimately, I learned that I had turn up the energy level in the classroom to 11 in order to keep him even remotely engaged. Normally, it would be less than ideal having an odd number of students, thus requiring some pairwork to be done in a group of three. In that particular class, I was happy to put him in a group of three. I didn't want to force him to do things he wasn't comfortable doing nor did I want to penalize another paying student by putting them with someone who refused to talk. Again, I had to understand his and others' needs and adjust the classroom to fit them.

Do you have any stories of teaching English to special needs students? Please share them in the comments.

I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar


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