I am a teacher to my very core. That’s what I naturally do. Anything that I’ve learned I will pass on–I can’t help it. I have been very blessed in my lifetime to know many “great” teachers: teachers that inspired me to do my best, and appreciate who I am, embracing both my strengths and weaknesses. They didn’t inspire me through any great speeches or Hallmark moments but they did, however, all possess three qualities that are essential for any effective teacher; especially in working with students who have disabilities. The first of these qualities is knowledge.
Knowledge? Isn’t that a no-brainer? Sure it is, but in reality, knowledge is the most time-consuming aspect of teaching. Teaching is being a life-long student. The best (music) teachers are those that are constantly searching out great curriculum, practicing and challenging themselves, learning from the experience of other teachers, and are willing to try new things. It is also important to know oneself and one’s students. I do not claim to be an expert, nor do I claim to have everything figured out. In fact, many times, much to my chagrin, the best way for me to grow as a teacher is to admit that I don’t know everything. Admitting failure (or lack of knowledge) is the hardest and most important thing for a teacher to be able to do. Those teachers that I have met who think that they have everything figured out, are usually so dependent upon one method, that when that method fails on one student, they blame the student’s lack of interest, motivation, etc…and never think of changing. Unfortunately, I have seen this happen far too often.
So how does a teacher’s knowledge tie in with teaching students with disabilities? To best teach students with disabilities, it’s most helpful to know what these particular disabilities involve; in essence, knowing the student well. Much of my knowledge in working with students with disabilities comes from personal experience and thanks to the wonders of the information super highway, I have found much helpful advice from other teachers and parents of students with disabilities who are willing to share their successes and failures and fresh ideas in how to best connect with their students. So much can be learned from other teachers! Below are a few forums and other websites that I have found to be both encouraging and insightful.
I have a student with Down’s Syndrome who loves music and has taken voice lessons for about 5 years now. The original idea was to use singing as a medium to improve speech clarity. And although there was some progress in his speech clarity, he made great progress in his overall musicality. His ability to match pitch, keep a steady beat, and understand basic music theory is amazing! Throughout the years, we have tried many different ways to integrate the rest of life into music since those are the things with which he connects most. At times, this has meant making up and singing songs about family members, sports, or using sign language (another part of the knowledge learning curve for me as his teacher), or making up dances to help him connect body motion to word memory. He loves reviewing things that we’ve learned previously as well as learning new things. He has now begun to read notes understand note duration by sight and is able to play both the recorder and piano. He is a joy to teach, and learning new ways to teach may sometimes be time-consuming, but completely worth it!
Although this student is just one example, knowing what motivates each student and understanding strengths and weaknesses is key. In the next part, I will be posting more examples and talk more about creativity in teaching students with disabilities. If you have any of your own teaching experiences of students, let me know! I’d love to hear!