Inspiring in a special way

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Special educator Maria Liberata Mendonca who was recently awarded the International Inspiring Award for her best social work, talks to NT BUZZ about the joys of her line of work

RAMANDEEP KAUR | NT BUZZ

Maria Liberata Mendonca’s passion for working with special needs people was ignited at a young age. Her school, she recalls, had organised a fundraiser for special people, and an enthusiastic young Mendonca managed to collect the highest amount for this cause. Buoyed by this, she made up her mind that she wanted to work with special people. And has been doing so for the last 22 years. In fact, last year, she got a National Award for social work. This year, she was among 50 to receive the International Inspiring Award from the National Child and Women Developmental Council.

“Teaching is a wonderful chance to change the world one moment at a time, and special education is no different,” says the Vasco-based Mendonca, adding that teachers who choose this line get to see the impact they have on their students every day. “When an autistic child who is resistant to personal touch comes up and gently hugs the teacher, the impact is real. Celebrating small victories in a student’s life impacts their overall success.”

These victories, she adds, can also be an encouragement for the student’s families and support system. “In a year’s time, a special education teacher can be a necessary part of many milestones.”

And by impacting a child daily, it can lead to lifelong impact for that child. “When a child who has cerebral palsy successfully learns a new way to communicate, this can directly affect their independence later in life. From simple improvements to huge leaps, the impact a special education teacher can have on a student can truly be life-changing,” she says.

As special educators, one has to assess students’ skills to determine their needs and then develop teaching plans; organise and assign activities that are specific to each student’s abilities; teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one; and write individualised education plans in parent-friendly language.

But often it also includes stepping up and advocating for a student. “An advocate goes beyond the classroom duties to create the best educational plan for a student,” she says, adding that teachers can team up with other educators, parents, health professionals, and school psychologists to find resources that meet the educational needs of all students.

A special education teacher can also educate peers. Often, she says, students with special needs lack social opportunities because they can have a harder time socialising and interacting with others. “By educating others about disabilities, it removes uncertainty and fear.”

Also, when a gap is bridged, she says, students can gain a lot from healthy socialisation. Interacting with others of differing abilities gives students the chance to learn from one another and create bonds. “Education breaks down social barriers, thus changing
communities.”

Of course, she admits, teaching special education is challenging. But, she adds, it is also very rewarding.

“Poet Robert John Meehan, known as ‘The Voice of the American Teacher,’ summed up the value of helping all children to be successful when he stated: ‘Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding’,” she says, adding that when a child makes a breakthrough, the teacher understands the effort required for that breakthrough. “Some other rewards are the special bonds that form with the students and their families, being a part of students accomplishing something they never thought they could do, and finally, the love the students give back,” adds Mendonca.

According to her, the most successful special education teachers have passion and dedicatedly work through challenges and keep searching for multiple ways to teach a single topic to best reach their students’ varied needs and learning styles. “Special education teachers have valuable insights to share with their peers about patience, empathy, working with parents, and more. Parents are involved with the Individualised Education Program (IEP) development. Over the years, several innovations have improved the way special education is delivered. Assistive technology is the most visible change,” she says.

And there is an increasing demand for special education teachers, states Mendonca, adding that this demand keeps increasing because the number of special needs students requiring services keeps growing. “This means special education teachers who are looking for jobs can readily find positions nationwide,” she says, adding that becoming certified to teach special education proves to be a highly versatile career choice, with multiple career path options.

Also, a disabled rights activist and tiatrist, Mendonca vows that she will strive to work hard for society and her special children. “I will continue to work beyond my best to ensure that I can reach out to anyone who may need my help,” she says.