Even as a child, special education teacher Patrick Aw always knew he would be an educator when he grew up.
He used to spend every Saturday watching his father, a teacher, hold basketball club activities at the now-defunct Kwong Avenue Primary School.
“I was well-schooled in the joys and pains of the profession,” says Mr Aw, 40.
In secondary school, his mathematics teacher demonstrated that “a teacher could also be a friend and mentor”.
But it was his time in junior college that convinced him to dedicate his future to special education. Together with his school’s community service club, he had helped the underprivileged — an activity which brought much meaning to his life.
“I enjoyed spending time with them, especially with the children. So I decided to marry my career choice and interest to become a teacher in a special school run by a voluntary welfare organisation,” says Mr Aw.
Shortly after he graduated with an a degree in architectural studies from university, he started teaching at MINDS Guillemard Gardens School. Five years later, he moved to APSN Chaoyang School, where he currently heads the English and Information Technology departments.
Last year, Mr Aw received an Outstanding Special Education Teacher Award, an annual award given by the Ministry of Education and the National Council of Social Service.
One of the daily challenges he faces is to ensure that each pupil in his class learns.
Each special education class may have 12 students, but each pupil’s abilities and needs are different.
“Special education teachers have to understand all their pupils well to set appropriate, pupil-specific educational goals that are not too simple or too lofty,” says Mr Aw, who holds a diploma in special education.
Apart from teaching, he also has to work closely with the students’ parents.
Very often, he says, this involves informing parents of their child’s learning and progress in school so that parents may employ similar teaching methods at home.
At times, teachers may have to step in to help if they realise that a pupil’s home conditions are far from ideal.
“To me, this is a real challenge because I have very little control of what happens to the pupils outside of school,” he says.
Two years ago, he recalls, he had a student who did well in school but would turn up for classes only about once or twice a week.
Calls to the student’s mother would be met with replies like “my child is sick”, he adds. When the phone calls failed to work, Mr Aw decided to visit the family.
He found out that the pupil’s mother, a single parent, had mobility problems and wanted her daughter to stay by her side to help her get around the neighbourhood.
“While I empathised with the mother’s condition, I had to explain to her that keeping her daughter at home was not helping the child in the long run. I also told her how capable her daughter was and that she had a real chance of being employed in the future,” he says. She eventually agreed to let her child attend school regularly.
It has been a memorable journey, and what has kept him going through these years is seeing his pupils enjoy his lessons. “It always reminds me of why I chose to be a teacher,” he says.
For those interested in special education, Mr Aw advises: “Find out more about the various special education schools here and the age and disability group they cater to.
“Decide which group of pupils you most prefer to work with. Take up part-time or relief teaching positions if they are available. Else, ask if you can volunteer with the school.
“As special education teachers, you have to be nurturing so that you seek to understand and help your pupils; energetic so that you are able to excite the pupils; and resourceful so that you are always thinking of new ways to get an idea across.”