Thursday, April 25, 2024

A teacher who takes special care

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AN EXUBERANT, DROOLING child runs up to “Auntie Jennah” to smother her with a kiss and Jennah Parris responds lovingly with a hug.

More than those looking on, this special needs teacher understands and appreciates the behaviour of the physically and emotionally challenged children with whom she interacts every day.

As the head of a school catering for children with special needs, she is mindful of the scope of her responsibility and is satisfied that she is doing a job in the field to which she was attracted way back while at the Christ Church Foundation School.

When she goes into classrooms at the privately-funded Sunshine Early Stimulation Centre this principal is hands-on, donning the hats of teacher, nurse, consoler and enabler.

“When you are teaching children you need patience. When you are teaching children with special needs you need ten times more patience. You need to be very open-minded, understanding and forgiving because sometimes with the things that happen, you have to look past the fact that the child has done it and realise it is a behaviour the child has exhibited. You should not hold that behaviour against the child,” Parris said in an interview with the SUNDAY SUN last week.

While her charges frolicked outside in the play park outside of her office at Perry Gap, Roebuck Street, in the late afternoon, Parris was at her desk inside taking a brief break from focusing and planning on how she could improve their lives.

“Sometimes the things that can happen in this field, you can’t hold them against the child. Every time I look at the child,” she said. “I can’t say ‘this child slapped me yesterday’.

“I have met people who have had children throw things at them; some have had to replace spectacles; their clothes have been torn; we have children who scratch. But you have to be able to move past those behaviours and tell yourself ‘I will start again fresh again’.”

These are lessons the young principal learnt over the last 15 years of a teaching career. She has no children, but her love for them began through her early engagement with children while she was at school. Extra-curricular activities such as Girl Guides and volunteering for Special Olympics sparked her interest in working with children.

At age 17, she began teaching at South District School, spending one term there before moving on to the “family environment” of the former St David’s Primary School in Christ Church. Next she moved on to St Paul’s Primary during which time she successfully completed teacher training studies at Erdiston Teachers’ Training College.

But the draw of special education was a stronger draw and realising she preferred this area of teaching, she acquired a bachelor’s degree in education with special needs at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus.

Teaching at the School for the Deaf and Blind (now the Irving Wilson School) gave Parris invaluable exposure to the challenges of children in all three areas of special needs to which that school catered. In the latter stages of the six years she spent at the Pine, St Michael School, her efforts were concentrated in the austism department.

At age 32 and still single, Parris is committed to devoting her energies to the development of the abilities of a growing sector of the Barbados population who often suffer from the insensitivity of others who know little about the realities of their challenges.

She took the principal’s job at the Sunshine Early Stimulation Centre in July last year, aiming to share the best of her skills with those children.

“As a special needs teacher you must have a willingness to learn because while you get a brief idea of what happens with varying special needs in your training, the real education comes when you are out there in the field. You have to be constantly abreast of developments and be upgrading your skills, learning and reading.

“Networking is also important as well, when you are a teacher you see things from an academic perspective, but there are other factors which have an impact on the child’s behaviour.

“A child may have varying sensory challenges, so things like lights and loud noises affect him; he may not have a strong core and cannot hold himself up, so when you ask him to sit up and he keeps slouching, you have to know that the child is not sitting up because he cannot sit up. This is where networking with other professionals gives you other perspectives.”

Parris would like to see greater public understanding, tolerance and a higher level of acceptance of special needs children. She reminds parents fortunate to have produced children free of developmental problems, of the adage “there but for the grace of God go I”.

In the sheltered environment of facilities specially designed for them, Parris says children with challenges enjoy a good peer relationship. They can frolic freely, and enjoy play, away from the steers and jeers they are likely to encounter when out in public. At school with others of like abilities, they are in their comfort zone.

Parris wishes that the public were more caring and understanding. She seethes with anger and frustration when she hears “her children” being spoken of in an unkind and thoughtless fashion, and especially when cruel remarks are directed at them.

“I like to take those little opportunities to educate people about what is really happening with these children. There needs to be that education for society generally and as well as parents,” she said.

The term “my children” is heard over and over again when this teacher speaks about her charges.

“One thing for me as a special needs teacher is to be reflective. Sitting and reflecting allows me to critically analyse my day; to see what else needs to be done for my children; to see where I can help my staff to deliver the best for them.”

She is buoyed by the little gains – “awesome accomplishments” such as seeing the normally restless child sitting for two minutes and enjoying an activity; the older child going from pampers to the potty for the first time; seeing a child managing to clap along with a song.

“Seeing children progress and seeing all those small milestones that the children make, that is the highlight of my career,” Parris said.

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