A poster child for teaching kids with disabilities in Vietnam

By Duong Tam   October 21, 2018 | 07:40 pm PT
She was not groomed for the job, but a teacher has found greater happiness in helping children with disabilities.

“I still remember the embarrassment, the feeling of something stuck in my throat when I scolded a student with disabilities, thinking he was bullying me.

“That was the first time I encountered a ‘different’ child and it was a moment of regret I cannot forget,” said Nguyen Ai Van, 42.

In 1998, after graduating from the Yen Bai Teacher’s Training College, Van was assigned to teach at Cam An Secondary School, in Yen Binh District of northern Yen Bai Province.

Her first class was not in her area, which was Literature and History, but in Biology and Agriculture for 7th graders. The school lacked teachers and extra responsibilities were a matter of course. Van was very nervous as she stepped into the class.  

Ai Van in one of her classes. Photo by Duong Tam

Nguyen Ai Van in one of her classes. Photo by VnExpress/Duong Tam

Just as she stepped on the platform in front of the class, Van heard the voice of a student at the entrance, asking to be let in. He was late. His face was flushed and he stooped a bit. The class started to whisper. Van thought he was trying to make fun of the new teacher and was determined to put her foot down. She allowed him into the class, but said firmly: “I’ll ask you to be serious, straighten up while you walk.”

“The whole class burst out laughing and the boy’s face turned even redder, he looked as though he was going to cry. Then the class leader explained that he was disabled and he could not help how he walked. I cannot describe how I felt. The whole class was quiet, and I didn’t know what to do except to quickly apologize to him and start the class,” Van recalled.

She learned later that the boy belonged to the Tay ethnic minority community, and born with a shrunken left leg, making him limp.

Throughout the school year, Van paid more attention to him. She spent time motivating and helping him to get along with other students and overcoming difficulties in his studies. The student was touched by her efforts.

“When he graduated from secondary school, he cried while saying thanks to me, even though I was not his homeroom teacher,” Van said.

That boy her first student with special needs and helping him helped her make a decision when a surprising, tough assignment came up.

In October, 2002, she was assigned to teach at the local educational centre for children in difficult circumstances, including orphans, children from poor families, and children with disabilities.

Her family and friends were worried and anxious about the new assignment, but Van was calm and prepared, though she lacked formal qualifications to take it up. She said yes, and has not looked back since, though the job was far more difficult than she imagined.

In 2009, the centre changed its name to Educational Development Center to Assist Children with Disabilities to Integrate into Public Education, Yen Bai Province.    

Van said she continuously improves and updates her knowledge and skills through the specialized courses she’s been attending every year. Her confidence in her ability to help the special children increased as she learnt more, and over 16 years, she has gathered invaluable experiences and insights.  

A second mother

Teaching children with disabilities is not an easy job. As much as knowledge and skills, it requires empathy, patience and love.

Every year, students with all kinds of disabilities are accepted into the school, those with hearing and/or speech impairments, blind, mentally and physically disabled, and so on. Such children are more upset and confused in experiencing a new environment than their “normal” peers.

“When they have to leave their parents or other guardians, most of them cry a lot and ask to go home, some try to find an opportunity to run away,” said Van.

Teachers have to deal with the emotional insecurities of such children and stand ready to help them at all times, from going up staircases to dealing with children who are withdrawn, scared of social interactions, and those who are very slow learners.

There are children who can only learn how to write their own name after a month of learning the alphabet. Others can get irritated easily and throw things, including food, on the floor. There are times when the teachers have to teach the same lesson over and over again for a week and the students still have problems understanding it.

At this center, a teacher’s job covers 24 hours per day, with the teachers taking turns at different times for different jobs.

The special needs children need individualized attention because teaching methods have to be adapted based on specific abilities and disabilities.

No matter what activity is organized, like excursions, music and sports events, children with special needs require special attention from the teachers.

With the aim of giving the children the ability to integrate back into normal society, the teachers also impart basic social skills, as well as motivate them to be self-confident and overcome society’s prejudices and other obstacles.

Inevitably, the teachers become second mothers to their students.   

Ai Van with her special needs students. Photo by Duong Tam

Nguyen Ai Van with her special needs students. Photo by VnExpress/Duong Tam

Nguyen Thi Lua, an administrative staff at the center, was also one of its first students. She said she has always seen Van as her second mother who helped be “reborn” and become who she is today, a person with a stable job and optimistic attitude to life.

With physical disabilities including heart problems, Lua had to go through many hard times. One night when she was in the 8th grade, her condition worsened - she couldn’t breathe, her limbs curled up and body became extremely tense. Van stayed awake until the morning, taking care of her, massaging her arms and legs, doing everything she could to help Lua stabilize, trying not to wake up the other students.  

“At the centre, there are always teachers ready to help the students, whether it is bathing, washing clothes, moving around or studying.

“Children with disabilities and sicknesses cry, attempt to escape, and want to give up on studying all the time. It can be really hard on the teachers. Without empathy and patience, no one can follow this career for 16 years like Ms Van,” Lua said.

On the other hand, students like Lua also motivate Van and her colleagues to stay and help children with disabilities.

Lua credits the sacrifices made by Van and other teachers at the centre with motivating her to study hard and graduate with a degree in Applied Computer Science from the Yen Bai Teacher Training College, and returning to work at the centre.

For Van, happiness is seeing her students make progress every day, not only their major achievements like passing their high school exams, learn how to do things which seem simple to others, learning to express their feelings, to love, to share with others, to help a friend who falls, and support each other in their studies.

Van said: “I have always believed that a candle, whether it is straight or curved, when lit up, will shine brightly. And I’m willing to spend my life “lighting” up the joy and dreams for these special kids. Teaching them gives me happiness that not many can get.”

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