Meet Helen Shand: teacher aide extraordinaire

Issue: Volume 95, Number 10

Posted: 7 June 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2L

Most of us have no idea what it’s like for families coping with a child who requires 24/7 care. Special education staff and teacher aides acquire valuable knowledge and insights but it’s the parents and those caring full-time for children with specialist needs that can teach us the most. Helen Shand is a teacher aide who shares both perspectives.

Newlands College specialist staff with students from the Learning Support Centre’s Deaf Resource class.

Helen Shand is in her 15th year as a teacher aide at Newlands College in Wellington. She is also Mum to Kurt (29) and Vicki (27).

Kurt had his first seizure at seven months old and at 13 months, a month after Helen found out she was pregnant with Vicki, Kurt was diagnosed with severe epilepsy. He had a gene mutation but they didn’t discover this until he was 17. He is also somewhere on the continuum of autism spectrum disorder.

This is a story about Helen’s journey as a mother and how being a parent of a child needing constant care has influenced her approach as a teacher aide at Newlands College.

A higher level of understanding

In 1999 Kurt became a student at Newlands College and this coincided with Helen “falling into the role” as a teacher aide.

“I used to go swimming after dropping Kurt at school. The students used to go on a Friday morning and I would see them there, including two deaf girls. Trying to communicate with them was hard so I decided to do night classes in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Sometime later, I was asked if I wanted a job!”

Helen was clear that she would accept the job only if Kurt would never be in her class and that if he ‘wanted’ her all the time, she wouldn’t be able to continue. As it turned out, Helen didn’t need to worry.

“In six years, Kurt only ever wanted me three times and each time it was because he was unwell. Sometimes, I could hear him but not often, so I could deal with that.”

When Kurt left Newlands College, Helen carried on because she enjoyed the role and other staff members were very understanding of her situation. Helen had to have school holidays off so working with the school terms was convenient. More than that though, staff understood that if Kurt had a seizure she had to go – straight away! It helped that Kurt was a student at Newlands College, so there was a higher level of understanding.

This is worth noting: firstly, because staff at Newlands College are flexible and caring enough to provide the support Helen needed to care for Kurt and maintain her career, and secondly because many employers might not be in a position to be so amenable.

Currently, Helen and her colleagues Tania, Joy and Ginny teach four deaf and one hard of hearing student.

Helen explains that it can be challenging getting first year students into a routine, as they are usually about 13 years old when they arrive.

Students are usually in this class for about two years and they gradually move up as they grow. However, the deaf students stay in the same class where the NZSL signers are. So while Helen may be teaching 17–19 year olds, she would also teach a new 13-year-old entrant.

Students usually stay at school until they are 20–21 years old. Some will attend mainstream classes for certain subjects and a teacher aide/interpreter will go with them.

Drama is a great example, as it’s so inclusive. Helen says they currently have quite a few Learning Support Centre students going to mainstream drama classes and they love it.

“The students are highly skilled and they just need a voice. Sometimes, it can be a social thing too – they need to learn to be with others.”

Many of Helen’s students are doing work experience in the community.

“Matthew works at the New World bakery and Iopu, who arrived from Samoa two years ago knowing no sign language, has progressed quickly and learnt how to pull apart, clean and fix coffee machines, and is now learning the art of coffee making,” she says.

A lot of teachers’ aides at Newlands College have worked there for a long time.

“Our head teacher aide has been here longer than I have,” says Helen.

“She is full of knowledge and an amazingly caring person. In some ways staff retention is good, because building rapport with students is essential. The students have to trust you enough to let you do what you need to do for them.”

Helen understands that the biggest issue for parents is trust – leaving their child with somebody else, especially for the first time.

“It’s particularly stressful because if something is wrong with your child, you can sense it but you don’t know ‘what’ is wrong because they can’t tell you. A lot of the students are non-verbal or can’t express themselves so it’s much harder when you know something is wrong,” she says.

Practising change and patience

Helen can be seen as ‘tough’ but believes it’s necessary. For example, she believes there has to be change.

“Autistic kids don’t like change but change is part of life, so you need to break their routine no matter how hard that is. If Kurt was away for a week, I would change his bed around. If I moved stuff off his bedside table, he’d just put it back. Big changes are a no go but you need to do what you can – a tweak here, a tweak there. You need to do it in stages so their anxiety levels don’t go up.”

Students may need to cope with moving house, with a change of teacher, even the death of a loved one, and if their routine has never changed they will find it extremely challenging.

Helen says her biggest work challenge relates to learning about each child and how she can help them.

“You want them all to reach a certain level. I had one child in their first or second year and I was going to make sure he passed science. And he did! He and his parents were just so excited. The thing is you know the kids can do it; so the challenge is having the patience to wait for them to reach their goals – if you don’t have patience, you can’t do this job."

“With parents, often the challenge is that they set goals that they want their child to achieve but the child may never reach them. For example, I would love Kurt to be able to cross the road on his own but he can’t. My plan for him when he started school was to spell his own name by the time he finished. So it’s important for parents to set short but lofty goals that are realistic."

She says it’s important to stay positive and keep working towards those goals – even if it takes years.

“It also helps to ask the students what they want. It’s about them as well. Parents might have an idea what they want their child to do but they might not want to do it. We look for their strengths and we nurture them, whether it’s in sport, drama, or gardening.”

Sharing success

Helen says the greatest reward of her work is watching her students achieve and excel.

“It might be winning a competition they have worked hard for. It might be making a lamp! Learning might take years but they can achieve something."

“Kurt didn’t like physical contact but every day I would wrap my arms around him and say ‘I love Mum’. It took years of doing this every day before one morning he finally said, ‘I love Mum’. It was one of the best days of my life,” she says.

Helen accepts her reputation for being tough with students. As the mother of a child with special needs, Helen knows that at 21 they are going to leave school. She says, “They need to have life skills or they will find it a lot harder when they leave.”

Similarly, she enjoys working with strong-minded students.

“They know where they stand with me – 90% of the time – and I just go to plan ‘b’ or ‘c’ for the other 10%."

“Communicating well with other staff here and sharing ideas is important. What works for one teacher aide won’t necessarily work for another but at least you can try things and share the learning.”

Helen says the world of special education has changed a lot since Kurt was a baby.

“There were no mobile phones, nor the same supports in place or access to information. I seemed to be fighting all the time for him for ORS funding hours. Kurt had a great primary school principal who was very supportive. Back then, teacher aide funding was an issue and Kurt could only be at school as long as there was a teacher aide there."

“Nowadays there is more support and a lot more information. There are some great parents who are so involved and want to help,” she says.

Does Helen switch off at the end of the day? Not always.

“It’s hard to switch off sometimes because you do become attached and it’s especially hard when the students leave school.”

As part of Budget 2016 Minister of Education Hekia Parata recently announced an additional $42.1 million over four years for students with special needs.

$15.3 million of this will enable 1,250 more special needs students to access teacher aide support. The funding increase amounts to an extra 550,000 hours of classroom support for these students.

The Government has said it will be looking to expand funding for more teacher aides in future budget rounds.

Budget 2016 also increased funding for the Ongoing Resources Scheme (ORS) by $16.5 million. The number of students receiving specialist help from ORS will now rise to more than 8,600.

Funding for the Intensive Wraparound Service also increased, by $8.9 million. The extra funding will increase the number of special needs students receiving intensive personalised support by 50, to 335 per year.


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:08 pm, 7 June 2016

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