I never gave them much thought when I was in school. Some people I considered "normal," like myself, and some I considered "special ed." Now that I am teaching, it has given me a different perspective. Because I am teaching primarily in an English program where students' parents are paying for them to be there, I do not encounter many special education students.
Two 'different' students
If anything, I deal with a lot of what, in my school days, would be considered "gifted." Because of that, most of my lessons are based around the assumption that most students will understand the material and be motivated enough to act whenever necessary. That said, though, I do have two students in one of my mathayom 2 (grade 8) classes who definitely have learning disabilities. While I consider myself a fairly good teacher, at least in terms of having students learn material, I am certainly not trained to deal with special needs children; I have been doing the best I can to reach these two students while catering primarily to the rest of the class.
In Thai public schools, at least in my brief experience, students are usually grouped according to the "norm," regardless of learning disabilities unless specifically requested by parents due to extreme cases such as blindness or deafness; in these cases, special public schools [apparently] exist for these students. For other, arguably less extreme disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or even dyslexia, students are generally grouped with "normal" students in an inclusion methodology; this basically means that the idea is to involve students of all abilities in the same setting to best reach the "norm" of the majority.
I cannot speak for whether or not this works in all Thai classrooms, but I do know from experience that this inclusion method fits in with [my understanding of] Thai culture and child-rearing in that people are expected to act with the majority, at least until graduation. This follows suit with mandated morning assemblies, state sponsored Buddhist teaching, uniforms, and the general nature of respecting elders.
Allow me to note here: I'm not even getting into student ability versus family ability to pay for said student to succeed. I'm just discussing the general, everyday students in Thai public/government schools.
Back to my two students: their parents truly believe that their being included with "normal" peers will be beneficial, and I honestly cannot fault them for either this belief or the results I have seen in class thus far. Both students, as I understand from my head Thai teacher and the personal [not from the school] counselor of each, have a mild case of autism. It's certainly obvious to both teachers and students, but the students are still generally able to function normally in class.
Other students, at least by American standards, are quite accepting of them. Even when I assign group work in our science classes together, I have yet to have any students openly upset about being grouped with these two. The students seem to accept it, and "carry" the students through the assignment.
Herein lies the primary problem, though; both special needs students have far inferior comprehension than their peers, and what ends up happening is that, especially in group work, they sit idle while the better able students do the work. I try not to allow this to happen, but realistically speaking, there are 30 students in class and one of me, and it's not fair for me to ignore the other students to focus on the needs of just these two.
My approach thus far has been, whether in group or individual work, to get some of the strongest students in my class to help the special needs students while I go around helping and answering the questions of others; luckily, I have several students in each class that can easily serve as "helpers," and these students have no problem being patient and helping the two lower achieving students.
Generally, once the initial questions are answered, I will devote a good deal of the rest of class time checking up on the two in question, albeit without drawing direct attention to the fact; I don't want to single them out, specifically both for their sake and the sake of the class. I cannot say whether or not this approach is the best method for these two students or the others, but I feel it has worked to some degree given the circumstances.
Luckily for these two students, their parents appear able to afford private tutors for them after school hours; although they do not make top grades in class, I can tell that someone is helping them study after our time together in class. I have not been instructed (and believe I'm not allowed) to modify any materials for them, although I will fully admit that I have, from time to time, graded them to a different standard as the need arose. That said, I also sometimes grade my highly gifted students to a different standard. My goal is to be as fair to the students - all students - as much as possible, and sometimes that requires factoring in what I believe is each student's raw ability.
Furthermore, due to the nature of the grading system at our school, it quite difficult to fail anyone, so even work that clearly shows comprehension to be lacking will not necessarily hold them back from advancing. I would argue that even these two students, after studying, at least understand more material than they don't, but there is certainly a lot of room for improvement.
A question of available resources
My mother is a seventh grade teacher in Georgia, and I am well aware of the multitude of special education initiatives that go on, ranging from her students integrated with "normal" students to fully self-contained (separate class) students. The law in Georgia (and many states) requires certain students with learning disabilities must have materials modified, as well as extra resources up to and including personal teaching assistants.
Here in Thailand though, even in paid programs inside public schools such as mine, these resources simply are not available, and the number of students needing special attention is so small that it makes sense (to the majority) to treat special needs students the same as everyone else in the hopes that they can adapt. Personally, I call it the "best of luck" method.
I am the first to admit that I can certainly handle the needs of non-typical students better. There are multiple ways to approach every issue, and within that framework, there are multiple conditions and resources with which to use. It is my hope that my judgment when teaching students with special needs has been beneficial for both them and their "normal" counterparts, but I certainly welcome any new insight into methods of best affecting all of my students.
After all, at the end of the day, ESL teachers or not, we're [hopefully] all here for one primary reason: to help students learn.