For a teacher who, although she is quite good, is used to teaching grade one in the sit-at-your-desk, follow-the-teacher format, a play-based kindergarten is quite a change. I think she’s still struggling to believe that children really can learn something by playing. We’ve only had three days of school, morning only, the first day was only for the children with special needs, and still this feels like one of the longest weeks of my life. I’ve been trying to be at the kindergarten for most of every morning. Fortunately, there’s not much cluster stuff to do yet.
We have about nine children with special needs in the class. Top of the needs list is a deaf and blind boy. He is becoming more comfortable in the class - that is, he’ll come inside the room, doesn’t spend quite the whole time crying “ooooh”, and will play with some toys without biting the person who hands them to him. His brother, who is about sixteen and seems to be the main person responsible for him, has stayed at school with him every day this week, and has been very helpful. Unfortunately, we’ll lose him when high school starts in a few days.
Next is a boy who is developmentally delayed. His father also has some kind of mental problems, but is the main caregiver for the two children as the mother is physically disabled and cannot walk. The father obviously has very limited parenting skills, which seem to centre on hitting, threatening to hit, grabbing and ignoring. We have accepted the four-year old sister as well, and both children are a handful, the boy taking pretty much the full time attention of one of our assistants, and so far not demonstrating any interests other than trying to test her. The Ethiopian class factor is definitely present – the assistants and teacher obviously don’t like these children, which certainly doesn’t help, and their complaints about behaviour have hinted at a request to reject the children from the class, which obviously would be contrary to our inclusion philosophy.
Then there are the typical problems of kindergarten – four year olds who spend the first half of the morning in tears, who have never sat down in a classroom and listened or played independently before.
And there are the simple joys of doing business in Ethiopia. We’re using a temporary classroom and the lock is broken. The college staff person responsible for locks has promised me about ten times that it will be fixed tomorrow, and every day, it’s not, and the teachers have to carry the materials in and out each day. Or the baker who promised brown embasha (Ethiopian bread) now says he can only do white, and today arrived with it an hour and a half after snack time.
The Inclusive Kindergarten is free. The idea is that in addition to serving children with identified special needs, we’re also serving children from poorer families who couldn’t otherwise afford kindergarten (in Tigray region, there is no kindergarten in the public system, but there are several private kindergartens popping up across Adwa, which range in price from 40 Birr to 300 Birr a month – even at the low end inaccessible for many families). So registration for our free kindergarten filled up quickly, on a first come first served basis, and since then parents have been coming to the college begging us to let their children in. Today, about three parents brought their unregistered children to the class and just left them there, and since everyone is new, the teacher didn’t realize they weren’t on the list until the parents had already left. At pick-up time we had to inform them that sorry, your child is not registered and won’t be registered. One parent took it pretty well, but another broke down in hysterical tears, kissing my feet and the teacher’s, begging us to accept her son. Later, two parents (the hysterical one and another one) showed up separately at my house, to try and convince my landlady to convince me to let them in, which to my mind is crossing a line, but lines are in different places here (although as the only ferenji, I’m the most recognizable person responsible for the Kindergarten, I usually defer to my Ethiopian colleagues when it comes to decisions about numbers and who to accept). It is really hard to say no, but with so many high needs children already in the class, the Steering Committee has really decided that we have to draw the line.
Part of the idea behind the inclusive kindergarten is to serve as a demonstration site for teachers to promote inclusive education in the regular grade 1-8 schools. The premise (my premise), I guess, is that teachers simply lack the inspiration to support children with special needs, and once they see how easy it is in our lovely kindergarten, they will become supporters and promoters of inclusive education and will welcome children with special needs into their classes.
As I said at the beginning, despite having taught (a painful experience) and studied Special Ed in Toronto, somehow I deluded myself into thinking that this inclusive education business would be a lot easier in Ethiopia than it is. The reality is that for a skilled and motivated teacher and three assistants in a class of less than thirty, coping with a child who is developmentally delayed or who is blind/deaf is very difficult… for a teacher on his or her own, who may not be as skilled, who has a class of fifty, sixty or seventy, it would be very difficult to teach or even to safely manage some of these children.
Apart from that is the issue of access. For children with special needs, school is not mandatory. We have several children in the kindergarten who are seven or eight (and several requests from families of even older children) who had been rejected by the local school. It goes further than just educating school administrators that they have to say yes to all children. Teachers need the skills and the resources to serve these children. I think of how difficult and complicated it is to meet the needs of special needs children in Canada, and really how much resources go into them, and are still not considered enough. It’s naïve to think that a little inspiration and a catchy slogan, Education for All, can solve this problem in the developing world, where often the problems are deeper and the teachers’ skills and resources are shallower. And once you get into the rural areas, the problems are far worse than they are in the towns.
One of the children on our initial list of children with special needs is a five year old girl, an orphan, who is “paralyzed” (probably cerebral palsy, but I’ve never actually seen her). She was living with her uncle and grandmother in Adwa, but the grandmother died, and the uncle couldn’t or wouldn’t care for her on his own, so he has sent her to live with other relatives in the village, where she probably will never leave the house. But who am I to judge? It would be hard enough caring for one’s own disabled child, let alone a child who you don’t feel a connection with. In the rural areas, even more than in Adwa, there is little expectation of children with special needs attending school. There may be an option of helping this family get a wheelchair, but if the girl stays in the village, a wheelchair will be more trouble than it’s worth on the rocky mountain foot paths.Another family was in town for the recent New Year holiday, and heard about the kindergarten. An eight year old girl, who is small enough that her mother carried her on her back the way mothers carry babies, who is multiply disabled – blind, deaf and unable to walk (cp again?). The family lives in a village about twenty five kilometers from Adwa – the kindergarten obviously can’t accept this child because the family has no way of bringing her to school each day. There are no residential schools in Tigray that serve children with multiple disabilities. And could the local school in the village serve her? At this point, probably not.