A few years ago I was asked to be a mentor teacher. Not to a new teacher at my school, or even in my district, but to a group of some of the very first special education teachers in Bangladesh. It would mean quitting my job and flying halfway around the world. It would also mean that my best practice could be the starting point for special needs education in Bangladesh.
So, I quit my job, packed a bag and tried to share the experience by writing columns from Bangladesh while I worked with teachers in both Dhaka and Rajshahi.
I could write a hundred #LoveTeaching columns from this trip alone. I saw such amazing things. Every day was filled with wonders. I think of the young lady at the Tauri Foundation Village School who performed a welcome dance for me. When she finished, the school director turned to me and told me the student was deaf and that no school would offer her admission.
That was a story close to Ashfaque’s heart. His own daughter has special needs and, similarly, no school would allow her to attend. So he started his own.
All Kids Are Special And Need an Education
The schools in Dhaka and Rajshahi are located in an area of Bangladesh so poor that few children have access to education. Ashfaque changed that. The village schools are different because they are for kids with special needs, yes, but they also allow every child to attend.
In a country where people with special needs are often kept separate, Ashfaque has created a school where kids are just kids. They are all special and they all need an education.
It was in Rajshahi, one of the poorest areas in the world, where something amazing happened. It was a moment so powerful that it defines why I love teaching so much and it may be a moment that only a teacher understands.
Khan is a young man who has autism. He is heavily impacted and does not speak or seem to understand what he is being told. He did not write and both his family and his staff were confused about how to reach him.
One thing was clear. He was an incredible artist. As I looked through his work I began to notice the incredible detail. His teacher proudly told me about how Khan’s work had been chosen by the Prime Minister for an art contest.
He Spoke Through Pictures
I was drawn to his work because I, too, draw. It is my magic power as a teacher for kids who have autism. I will very often draw what I want as I say what I want. I speak through pictures. Khan was speaking through pictures, too.
It was the Pepsi machine that clued me in. He’d drawn a Pepsi machine from memory. It included all the English words you’d see in an ad for Pepsi.
I took a piece of paper and wrote, “Draw a fish.”
Khan stared at it. His staff tried to stop me. “He can’t do that.” I was told. I pointed to “Draw a fish” and waited. He just stared. His staff tried to intervene again but I shooed them away. Khan looked at me and I tapped the paper.
He drew a fish.
His staff gasped.
“Draw a dog,” I wrote.
He drew a dog.
“Draw five animals,” I wrote.
He drew five elephants.
This young man, lost in a sea of verbal words, had somehow managed to teach himself English.
It is hard to explain the emotions I watched wash across the faces of his teachers and staff. Mostly, it was elation that this young man they loved had just taken a huge leap forward. But their joy was quickly replaced by confusion and doubt.
I was there as a mentor teacher. I’d been saying over and over how we never know what is going on inside a student. Just because we don’t see change or forward momentum, it doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. I tell every student teacher I meet that every kid deserves a rich environment and we should give them access to beauty and richness—even if we don’t see the impact of it.
That isn’t a special ed thing. That’s an every kid thing.
In that moment, the entire trip to Bangladesh became worth it, but the most inspiring moment came about an hour later when I rode home with the student and his teachers. They told Khan’s mother we had something to show her. She didn’t know what to expect.
So, you know those moments when you realize just how much you love teaching? I’d like you to imagine this: Sitting at a table with a 14-year-old boy and his mother. He’s never said a word to her in his whole life and she is so frightened about his future.
“Draw your mom,” I wrote.
He looked at me.
And he looked at me.
And he picked up his pencil and crossed out mom and wrote “mother.”
I watched her face as he did it.
That is why I love teaching.
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