Teaching in the Land Down Under
Amy Hepworth - Canberra, Australia
I have the travel bug. For as long as I can remember, I have dreamt about visiting far off places . . . traveling all over the world and experiencing different cultures. And at the top of my list of places to visit was Australia. I fell in love with the beauty of the country through pictures and movies such as The Man From Snowy River and come on, who doesn’t love the accent? I always thought it would remain a dream, a wonderful but unrealistic dream. Then I discovered the student teaching abroad program for Canberra, Australia, and the dream became reality.
For five amazing weeks I was able to experience the land that is “down under,” with its beautiful scenery, wildlife, and the overwhelming friendliness of the people. Although I have many wonderful and extraordinary memories of my time abroad, such as seeing kangaroos up close and personal, petting a koala bear, staying in a hostel in Sydney and seeing the Opera House and Harbor Bridge (images that I thought I would only see in pictures or the movies), attending a rugby game, and volunteering at Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, there is one memory that stands out among the rest: the whole purpose of the program, and that is the time spent in my school placement.
As a special education major with a focus on cognitive impairment, I was very excited to hear that I had been placed in a special education school for students with moderate to severe cognitive impairments. Not only was I going to experience, for the first time, a school specifically for students with special needs, but I was also getting the opportunity to see what similarities and differences there are in special education between the United States and Australia, and what I might be able to take from that experience and use in my future classroom. From the moment that I stepped into the school and met the staff and students, I fell in love with it. There was a definite family atmosphere that I just haven’t felt anywhere else. The staff welcomed me with such open arms and genuine warmth. They had never had an international student teacher in the school before and seemed just as excited to have me as I was to be there. Every staff member made me feel, from the very start, that I was part of the professional community and that I belonged. There was even that family atmosphere in regards to the students. Every staff member from the principal and teachers, to the learning support assistants (known to us as paraprofessionals) and other support workers, are called by their first names by the students. It seems very informal, but it works for them. It was very evident that the teachers and principal were all about the students and what was best for them, which is how it should be, but often times is not.
I had the extreme privilege to work with the students who had the most severe cognitive impairments, many of whom were wheelchair bound and nonverbal; several also had seizures. It was not uncommon to witness three to four seizures an hour, sometimes for just one student. It was heartbreaking to see them, but I loved working with these students. When you make a connection with them and they smile at you, though they can’t say a word, their smile says it all for them. They give you a new perspective on life. In fact, the whole program and experience gave me a new perspective and an even more tender heart for those with special needs.
Studying abroad is life-changing. There really is no experience like it. I have no regret about studying abroad; my only wish would have been to stay there longer.