From the Office of Dr. Harrison, the Principal of Shishur Sevay Academy –

So, now I am a principal too.  I have tried and tried to find someone to run the school aspect of Shishur Sevay but it isn't happening.  We are in May and the school year will end in Dec. or Jan this year.  So, first of all, I am Principal of a school with 12 children and 11 teachers, at the moment.  They come different overlapping days and hours.  We have some variety of teaching going on seven days a week. The obvious question is why so many teachers?  The simplest way to answer that is with pictures. 

The children with disabilities:



Four children are in this category:  Sonali, Bornali (Bono), Ganga, and Rani. For the children to learn requires one-on-one teaching, as they are at such indredibly different stages.  Ganga and Bornali are the closest to each other so often they can be taught together, but as they have little use of their hands, a teacher has to work closely to understand what they know, what they are trying to point to — requiring a high level of attentiveness.  Three teachers seems like an ideal number as one child is usually out for feeding or toileting.  As the four girls represent three distinctively different groups and levels, two teachers is an insufficient number.


The girls all used to nap after lunch, but Ganga and Bornali no longer want to.  So, it's play time.  Bornali loves action.  Ganga was more interested in posing.

Computer time often comes next.  This is the area where I feel most frustrated in finding help.  I am determined to use high tech communication appliances because I believe these children want to communicate, and can communicate with assistance.  The holes in the back or the orange chair represent where we had head switches mounted on a board for Ganga.  We may go back to that.  I also want to evaluate her for toe switches.  I spend hours going through catalogs, communicating with people online, trying to find some guidance.  But we have started at least and Ganga and Bornali love it.  Bornali is pouting because it is Ganga's turn.  I need to set up a two switch system and that just requires some time.  I'm the IT department here too.  

Recently the girls received their disability examinations by government doctors.  The four little ones each were rated as 90% disabled.  One of the older girls received a 75% disability rating due to her learning and behavior difficulties.  So yes, I need a teacher for her too because everyone here has to learn, at whatever level it is.  She often assists the special educators with the little ones, thus developing her own level of skills with them.  If she can really grow in this role, then she can eventually find employment helping with children who have disabilities.  She is very good with the little ones.  We still continue some academic work with her, partly because she loves it and feels successful in figuring out very simple numbers.  Her alphabet chart is the same as the one we use for Ganga and Bornali.  She also helps them with their homework.  Ganga and Bornali go out to the government school from 6:30 to 8:15 and return with homework in Bengali.  The teachers also review the work in English, so the girls get both.

Well, back to upstairs… here are some pictures of what the classroom looked like on a recent afternoon.


For this math class, the teacher on the right is teaching, and the teacher on the left is doing "back-up."  She is helping the girls who disruptive and having a hard time understanding.  She is a Learning Disability Specialist, trained abroad, and central to how the educational program is structured.   She is giving them the attention they require in order to work.

What does that mean, "the attention they need in order to work?"  This is really a critical question I ask myself every day.  I'm often faced with an attitude from outsiders that if the girls can't study and behave, let them stay uneducated, let them have regrets one day.  But that is not what we do with our own kids when they don't study.  I've been through lots of stages, including anger, punishing them, taking away TV, time out — but if a child really is resistant those things will not work.  So I go to a "need" basis, rather than a bad behavior basis.  I still discipline.  The rules are that you can't stay in the room if you are disruptive — when only one teacher is there, because you are not allowed to interfere in the learning of others.  If a second teacher is there she will help in the room, or take you out of the room.  But the teaching doesn't end.  "I will fight with you forever!" is what I tell them.  But punishment?  How do you punish children who already lost everything, who see themselves as unworthy, who have been beaten and punished in all sorts of ways….?  They care about what I think, and what others think, but this only goes so far in overcoming their difficult behavior.  And fundamentally they need the help because it is human attention that translates into caring, commitment, really a crutch to help them stand as they try to solve math problems that frighten them.  They are afraid of making mistakes.  Emotionally they feel like the world will end if they get it wrong.  It's easier to rip up the paper, or create distraction.  So back up teacher does a lot of, "You can do it."  She breaks down tasks to doable pieces and then the work seems almost easy.


Another teacher has come and she will do back up for a while and then start Bengali class.  The teacher doing math will then do back up as well as the LDS.  Without this support this girl will fall behind.  Her confidence will drop more.  She will hate herself and everyone around her.  She is probably our smartest math student.

On another day the LDS is working on math with two girls who have some trouble with basic concepts of quantity.  So even though the girls are doing high math numbers and functions, she is having them use the red blocks to show the functions of multiplication and addition.  One of the girls has trouble with concepts and abstract thinking.  She is also easily distracted.  But her behavior also had improved tremendously.  The other girl though is very smart, but is just settling in after three years and putting energy into study.  She used to just give up.  Now she tries, and asks for help with her work.  She wishes that when we have previous lifetimes we could keep the multiplication tables with us so we wouldn't have to work so hard to learn them in this lifetime.

While all this is going on upstairs, there is yet another teacher downstairs working with one girl who is a year behind the others.  She technically passed Class I but I wanted her held back because I knew she had no idea what she was doing, and I wanted her to have a good foundation.  She is doing well, but also needs constant reassurance.  Sometimes she just stops working.  That's it!!!!  Then I'm called and I pretend to wind her up like a clock and then I push a "button" on her back and she goes back to work.

So, the afternoon all this was going on, there were three teachers upstairs with the six, one teacher downstairs with the girl who is a year behind, and then the girl with dyslexia working along side them.  In the big room were two teachers with the little ones.  That's six teachers for 12 girls.  That's what it takes.  I don't see how to do it without the support of many teachers.  The girls still struggle with "how to learn."  They often work in groups now. 

They read newspapers:


They do homework:


They learn computer.


So, what's the problem?  The problem is when they are in a classroom and MUST perform, must do the problem, must confront what they know and do not know.  It's the necessity of work, the lack of free choice, the expectations.  Sometimes they freeze. like deer in the headlight.  And then it takes a human voice or touch to put them at ease to face the task given to them.  They are very tough kids, and very scared kids.  At some level they know they have been given an extraordinary chance at life, and they must worry that it will disappear, Poof!!! and they will be alone, again. 






1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lynn Kotula
    May 14, 2010 @ 04:22:10

    Michelle, I love seeing what you and your girls are up to; I know it is sooo hard but it seems that, because of your intelligence and determination and empathic abilities, that you’re doing the right things for kids who, on the basis of their personal histories and their culture, have huge burdens.


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May 2010
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