I am a physically disabled person. I have cerebral palsy and I am a wheelchair user. I graduated in English four years ago and when I entered college my idea was to work as a translator.
However, after some time I realized I did not fit in the profession. Therefore, I decided to become a teacher, in spite of all the difficulties I would have to overcome.
I have just started my career as an EFL teacher and in this article, I intend to share with you the challenges I faced in my first experience as a teacher. I additionally do some interesting work for students who follow an online course with Covcell.com to get their high school equivalency diploma, a job that suits me pretty well.
How I got the job
A friend of mine called and asked me if I would like to teach Basic English to a group of about 15 physically challenged learners at the Association for the disabled in Curitiba.
The aim of the course was to increase the students’ chances of getting better jobs. This project was sponsored by state government funds; the learners didn’t have to pay for the course and the course books were included. I liked the idea very much and accepted the job.
The course book
As my course book I adopted Interchange Intro A, written by Jack C Richards and published by Cambridge University Press. Some of the reasons which led me to this choice were:
- it’s a very well-known book
- there are many language schools in Curitiba which use this book
- it is not expensive
- the teacher’s manual has very useful hints for the teacher
Of course, I had to adapt some of the activities (especially in the ‘Snapshots’) when there was a suggestion to use the blackboard.
My classroom and my students
I would describe my classroom as one from the seventies, with very old-fashioned desks, making it hard for me to circulate among the students. In addition, I could not rely on ‘technological devices’ such as OHP, VCR and computers. I just had a blackboard, some chalk and a tape recorder with a CD player.
I started off with twelve adults in my group. Eleven of them were physically disabled, although they were able to walk; and one was an able-bodied person who acted as a companion to one of my students who could not come by herself.
On the first day of class, I gave a diagnostic test, so that I would have some information about my students’ profile and background. This would help me to plan my classes better. In the first part of this test I asked some questions such as: ‘Have you ever studied English?’, ‘Why did you decide to take this course?’, ‘What are your expectations about the course?’ and so on. The second half of the test consisted of some grammar-based exercises. The questions in the first half of the test and the instructions for the exercises were written in Portuguese.
Based on the results of these tests, I came to the conclusion that most of them were ‘real’ beginners and had had little previous contact with English. Unfortunately, in most cases their level of motivation was very low. English was not part of their daily lives. Additionally there were three students who were low-intermediate and did not fit in the group.
Two months into the course, two new students joined the group.
The strategies and techniques I used in the classroom
When I started teaching my main concern was: ‘How am I going to teach without using the blackboard?’ Since the blackboard was one of the only resources available, the solution I found was to ask the learners to go to the board and write for me. Usually I spelled everything.
I used realia in the classroom and some pictures to teach vocabulary. On one occasion I divided the class into two groups and asked them to label the objects in the classroom.
I also prepared a poster with some key questions and key requests such as: ‘How do you say ____ in English?’, ‘Can I drink some water?’
Since I could not rely on body language to convey messages, I feel I overused Portuguese and translated too much. Sometimes, I even asked myself: ‘Am I really teaching English?’
Why students quit the course
My students started to disappear from the second day of class. I believe some quit because, as I mentioned above, they had a higher knowledge of English.
Others, who disappeared in the middle of the course, gave up because they were overwhelmed and felt they could not cope with the challenge of learning a foreign language no matter how hard they worked.
The good thing is, as far as I know, the fact that I am a physically challenged person did not interfere in their decision of giving up the course. However, I must say that personally I believe my disability interferes in my capacity to transmit my knowledge to the students. (See my comments above on the use of the blackboard and use of gestures. Also overuse of translation.)
We had to cancel the course because there were not enough students in the class. This was in accordance with the rules established for the project and therefore, the government would not sponsor the course any more. On the last day of class I had only five students. After almost three months of classes they had enriched their vocabulary and learned some basic structures.
My hopes for the future
You might be wondering why I am sharing a negative experience. First, because I look forward to hearing some suggestions from my colleagues that will help me to become a better teacher in the near future. I am especially interested in strategies to ‘compensate’ for my physical limitations. I do not want this negative experience to stop my career.
I also hope to make you reflect about how to deal with the disabled students you might come across, due to the ‘inclusion phenomenon’ now being implemented in Brazil. Finally, through this article I want to alert you about the need to undertake research about how to teach learners with special needs.