Jitka Hatinová: All children must get the same chance to be educated
Even though Jitka Hatinová is a special needs educator today, her first desire was to become a nurse. In fact, she even graduated from nursing school.
After some time she became convinced that she wanted to work exclusively with children. This is her 18th year working at the Žebrák Primary School, which is currently delivering four different kinds of educational programs.
Hatinová knows her own mind when it comes to the much-discussed issue of inclusion in the schools. "Everything changed when I became a mother myself," the 40-year-old begins her story.
"After the birth of my daughter Denisa, I got a job offer to work as a nurse in the internal medicine department of a hospital. My task was to fill in for other nurses who were on vacation. I soon learned that even though I had dreamed of working as a nurse, I was unable to overcome the pitfalls of the job," she says with sincerity.
"It bothered me that the direct work with the patients was nothing like what I had imagined it would be. I recognized that I couldn't influence it because there was no time for contact with patients due to all the paperwork," the primary school teacher says.
When a new school opened in Žebrák, her story began in earnest. She began working there as a teaching assistant in the after-school program.
Some of the children needed to take medicines regularly, and as a qualified nurse she was able to provide medical supervision as well. It did not take long for her to become the head tutor, and at the prompting of the school principal, she decided to complete her college studies.
At the time her youngest duaghter, Natálka, was four years old. It was decidedly not an easy time for the family of four.
While today it is common to combine raising a family with work, adding in university studies on top of that requires a certain dose of courage. "After studying special education I learned how many mistakes I had already made during my teaching. Some people feel like they are 'world-beaters' when they graduate, but in my case it was the opposite. Suddenly I learned how I might do things better, because in my case the theory was being combined with a practice that I was directly in the process of delivering," she says.
Working as an educator has its risks, including burnout. Hatinová notes that a pupil's results may not always follow as rapidly as an educator might wish, even after intensive effort.
The public is more interested in inclusion now than before
For the past 11 years, after the 2004 change to the Schools Act, the school where Hatinová works has no longer been called the "Special School for Pupils with Multiple Defects" and is now called a "Practical and Special Primary School". It houses a total of six classes attended by pupils of different ages with various disabilities.
Each class can have as many as five different age groups of pupils in it who have been diagnosed with either mild, medium, or profound mental disabilty. "We also have children without mental disabilities in our school who suffer from physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, or serious speech defects, or impaired ability to communicate. At our school these children are educated according to the same curriculum that children in a mainstream primary school are," she says.
Those who follow current events know that inclusive education is at the forefront of public interest. Today it is also publicly known that Romani children have been disporportionately educated in the "special schools".
Unfortunately, that remains true to this day. The D.H. case regarding the incorrect enrollment of 18 Romani children from the Ostrava area into what used to be called the "special schools" (zvláštní školy) was decided in their favor by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity.
Hatinová is convinced that if she had lived in an excluded locality as a child, she would probably have been tarred with the same brush as other Romani children and, instead of being allowed to attend mainstream primary school, she would have graduated from a "special school" herself. While she is not forcing her daughters to go into any particular direction today, the appetite for education is a matter of course in her family.
Her oldest daughter, Denisa, is studying English and pedagogy at Charles University in Prague. Two of Jitka's cousins are also at college in Slovakia.
Preschool education is crucial for children
As a special educator, Hatinová warns that children living in ghettos frequently do not access preschool education. These children are, in her view, usually unprepared for the primary school curriculum.
"In such a case, it is necessary to have a competent special educator and assistant directly in the classroom to deal with the situation," she says of her experience from practice, as she is convinced that preschool education (one year of which will be mandatory in the Czech Republic as of September 2017) is essential to child development. Nursery schools are meant to develop the skills children require for acquiring literacy and numeracy, using their auditory and visual perception, etc.
Children who undergo preschool education also have better starting positions for primary school than those who never do. "Then there are, of course, children who, depsite the fact that they are clever, are unable to attend preschool because of a health-related, medical disability," she says.
"As a Romani woman, I believe inclusion must be practiced in the schools. Speaking as a professional, I know that among the children with mild mental disability who are being discussed right now there are also children who have other associated defects. This does not necessarily mean autism, which is generally known about, but perhaps other genetic disabilities that have certain specifities, or disorders of the capacity to communicate. Frequently, mild mental disability is the least serious affliction limiting pupils in education, because what is more difficult for them, at any given moment, can be that associated defect. That is something that would disadvantage a child at any school," the educator explains.
Hatinová has personal experience with children who are physically disabled and who are educated at her school according to the mainstream primary school program. "Those are pupils whom I cannot imagine attending a regular primary school. We have children here who have been diagnosed with moderately profound mental disability, but in certain areas they actually perform better than children whose disabilities are only physical. Children living with physical disability frequently find it hard to take when something does not succeed as they would like. I'm not talking about their learning - they naturally do better at that. What I mean are common socialization processes, such as when children need to put on their own shoes and don't want aid from us adults, but want to do it on their own. Children living with physical disabiities are frequently frustrated that another child who is in a 'worse' class, the special education class, can master a physical task like that without any problems," she says.
The dark-haired teacher also admits that problems between children can also arise in the other direction. Non-disabled children reportedly can ultimately be frustrated if a pupil with mid mental disability manages to perform some mathematical tasks better than they can.
"We work differently with each child, each one is educated in a different progam, the anticipated outcomes of their education are set differently for each person. We use different techniques and methods for each one," the experienced educator says.
"When I teach a child with cerebral palsy to write, and these are children with left-sided hemiparesis, or partial paralysis of one half of the body, it means their grasp on the pencil itself is not the best, so I have to first relax their arm and shoulder. Those children mostly learn to write in block letters," she describes.
Parents should collaborate closely with the school
Hatinová complains that recently she has the feeling that countless experts on education and inclusion have begun to turn up in the Czech Republic. Only some of them, however, are able to say that they know about this problem from practical experience.
"This is not so much about the educators, but about children and their parents. When we bring children from our school to the theater, if non-disabled children are also in the audience, then our children don't come away from the theater performance having focused on the show - their experience is that the non-disabled children have laughed at them and their deficiencies. Children are aware of their disabilities. It's different for pupils who have no perception at all of their disabilities, but those are the people who are diagnosed with moderately profound or profound disability," she explains.
It is precisely this kind of insensitivity that can be addressed with the aid of inclusion. The non-disabled classmates of disabled children will not find them so amusing or ridiculous once they get to know them as part of the class collective, Hatinová believes.
In her view, however, the question is how the process of education will be set up when it comes to acquiring knowledge and skills. "I am convinced that, for example, with physical education, even though the limits for disabled children may be reduced, they will not be able to achieve the same results as non-disabled children, or they won't be able to complete as many math problems in a given time. Understandably, therefore, they will perceive their deficits even more," she says of the risk that disabled children will experience frustration.
On the other hand, inclusion will also be difficult for non-disabled children as well. "If an autistic child attends the same class with them, you never know what might happen at the moment such a child undergoes an attack. It could be sparked by the teacher wearing a red t-shirt after wearing the color green all week. Suddenly the child has a fit and begins running around the classroom and lashing out at everything. You must count on that," she warns, adding that if the Czech Education Ministry lives up to its obligations and keeps it promise to provide support measures, there need not be so much of a problem with inclusion.
"I am just concerned that it is precisely these children who will ultimately end up in segregated schools, that they will be taught in isolation, separate from the rest of the class. Unfortunately, I recently visited one such 'inclusive' school. At our school everybody learns together, and in other schools they certainly do as well, but only time will tell how it all turns out. What is crucial is primarily collaboration between the parents and the school," she warns.
Hatinová's Romani origin does not interfere with her profession as a teacher, but as an early childhood consultant, she sometimes grapples with discrimination. "As part of early childhood care you visit people in their homes to perform interventions, and sometimes it happens that a father opens the door and my appearance gives him pause. Fathers can be aloof and anxious about me for some time, but eventually they accept me. There is no problem from the mothers, they are glad somebody is coming to aid them with their unwell children. I am of the opinion that we are here to aid those who need help and who are weaker than we are. Let's at least attempt to do so!" she says.
First published in the monthly Romano voďi (July/August 2016). You can order the Czech edition by completing the online form at www.romanovodi.cz.
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