I can’t say I'm a teacher. I have no training for this.
But I can’t deny that I work teaching, because it’s what I do every day.
My background is Occupational Therapy, and I ended up deciding to work with children.
What I do basically is to teach skills so that they can live better in the society.
When I was in college, I attended a program working with underprivileged disable children. I ended up going in many schools because of this project. It was then that I realized something very important: The city of Philadelphia is a large urban city, the children were there, inside the classrooms but having problems to feel part of it. Most of these children were autistic and they had no access to proper treatment.
When I was in high school, I worked as an educator in an aquarium. Basically, I had to learn and teach what it meant to be a marine biologist.
I learned a lot from this experience. I ended up making friends with the coordinator of the place and later, when I was already working with autistic children, I asked if she could take some of these children to meet the aquarium, I’m not sure about how well they’ll behave. I don’t know, can you help me with anything? Give me two or three tickets and I try to get money for others.’
She called me and said, 'How many tickets do you need? How much money do you need? '
She gave me 20 tickets and I took the kids there. They were children who had never stepped out of their own neighborhood. They loved the experience.
After that, we created a project to bring autistic children to explore places such as museums and other places of the city of Philadelphia.
Today, they can attend many of these places for free, because of this program. In addition, we began to train employees of these spaces to receive these children and their families.
Here in Vietnam?
Well, my girlfriend and I wanted to give a break from the United States and teach English in some other country.
I was with a little concern about it because, as I said, I love children, but I have no teacher training.
In the end, I discovered that there are many children here who are autistic and that I could be an expert help.
All therapies that we are used to are very recent here. They started to work with the issue of mobility about ten years ago, but has no occupational therapy or speech therapy, all of this is just beginning here.
I have worked with children, helping them to live better at home, at school and in the spaces of social life.
One of the girls I work with is 17 years old and is autistic. She managed to graduate from high school, but the parents wanted her to continue to learn something. They couldn’t send her to college because she doesn’t have autonomy to be alone. So they called us. We have worked with her, thinking how she can be part of the community. What kind of resources exist in this community?
It’s important to know that being a disabled child here is different from being like this in Brazil or the United States. There is no kind of support.
So the research has to be ever deeper to find the right resources.
We were able to think of the idea of her start a business. Then we began to teach her about the market, 'What is money? How we generate money? How you take care of you? How to catch a bus to go to work?'
And so we teach it to research and understand each of the processes involved in creating a new business.
Basically, I think that what we do can be called education, because it means to teach social skills.
What I do is teach what society or the community didn’t, because they believed it was trivial or she should already know.
So we help her to really build a business. Every two months, they make a market, a local fair. We got a space for her at the fair and in every edition she sells a different product. In the first she sold brownies, in the second, sold cookies and now, in the last edition, she sold different kinds of salads, asparagus, vegetables and things like that. The general idea isn’t it just making money. It’s present the possibility of her leaving home and be part of the community, interacting with everyone. Because we all want that human connection. People without disabilities and disabled people are equal at this point: we all want to be part. And for her, that is an autistic teenager, this was a distant reality. Now it’s not anymore. She is able to search for what she need, is more independent. She can take a taxi alone (even knows how to use the Uber) and can sometimes uses the city buses. These are the results that make us realize that our work really brings important changes.
Some parents contact me and say, 'Oh, my son makes strange movements.'
I always learn a lot when talking to parents. Basically, they tell me: 'My son is crazy.’
This is something that is very characteristic here. Society knows very little about mental illness and different living conditions or learning problems. When they start talking about the symptoms, attitudes, I think we need to understand the whole picture and think of a strategy.
For a mother, I said I couldn’t diagnose the child and that she should see a psychologist. She did it and he was diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). When I started working with him, I realized that OCD was only a small part of all that was happening to him. The fact that he had been diagnosed with OCD, in this case, was like opening a box where all the other things were hidding. It was showing anxiety and depression, which were the main reason he wasn’t doing well in school. The parents didn’t know that the child had these problems and therefore didn’t even know how to get the right resources to deal with it. My work with him is different, has a lot of talk, he writes daily and it is amazing to see this shy boy of 17 years opening and becoming a completely different person: 3 months ago teachers were concerned because he was going to fail in all matters, now, he will pass all of them. He kissed a girl for the first time, danced for the first time. That's incredible. Now he is connecting with friends, he is able to interact more with the community. My excitiment may sound cliché, but it's really impressive to see this process going on and be part of it.
If we had meet when I was a child, I would never imagine that we would be talking about autistic children education here in this country. I never liked school or to study.
I’m a result of the Vietnam War. I was born here, but my family left the country when the war ended. I was very young. I grew up in America and I feel American, I feel more connected with the life I have there. One of the reasons I have chosen Vietnam when I decided to travel, was the ability to connect with this other side of who I am. Growing up in America, I was never a student grade A, always something like B or C. I never thought I would make to college, get a degree was never a part of my plans. Being here on the other side of the world, talking about education with you, it’s something surreal if I think about my past.
When I was a teenage, I thought about joining the Army, which is basically what happens to all the teenagers who saw the army as the only way for free education or traveling the world. And many boys are sucked into it. The idea that they could study for free is true, but I think the army is not for everyone. Still, most of my friends from high school ended up following this path. My parents never liked the idea and always thought that i should keep studying.
I wasn’t a good student. I think I'm a good worker.
Still, I remember almost all my teachers. In particular, I remember Mrs. Sidick. She was my teacher in first grade. It was she who taught me English. It was a Indian American. When I met her, I didn’t speak a word of English and six months later, I had learned almost everything. English is a fairly simple language. But I remember it, perhaps because it was the first teacher. You know, everyone has a favorite teacher.
It's funny that when I’m with the kids I help, I'm not teaching them, I get into a "mom mode". I imitate my mother and how she used to do things. Because many of the children I work with don’t understand emotions. They seek to understand and feel the love and the pain of the other, but in a free way.
The situation of children with autism here in Vietnam is terrible. They don’t have practically any support. Many families with autistic children feel trapped, not knowing how to act and what to do. And here, there are many types of ‘therapies’, many drugs and treatments that promise 'to cure’ autism. Parents don’t know where they should ask for help and what kind of resources they should ask for. There are hardly any government initiatives. Some NGOs and other institutions try to create paths. But I have observed (with joy) a strong community movement. Parents of autistic children are united in pressing the government for changes and this is very good! They created the Vietnam Autism Network, which is a network of parents that connect them to exchange information and help. So we are in this period of change, it seems that the government is starting to look at this and is trying to understand what is autism and what are the mental illnesses. Here there isn’t any type of special education. Most regular schools don’t know how to teach children with disabilities. The idea of inclusion is something even far from the educational reality here. I mean, disable children are inside the classrooms, but aren’t learning.
Just as an example, I worked with a child that all teachers said that ‘don’t learn'. That was a big problem, because here in Vietnam, teachers can still use corporal punishment (spanking), if you are not learning. Can you imagine what that is? He was traumatized and didn’t want to go to school. The parents hired a private teacher and the boy spoke only English with the teacher, didn’t want to speak Vietnamese with him at all. At school, there were many foreign teachers. But as the rule of punishment is something that only the Vietnamese teachers use, he associated the teacher who spoke Vietnamese with spankings and beatings, it was almost a case of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and he couldn’t go back to regular school. The parents had no money to pay for an international school, so he has to study at home. I started working with him and the boy is a genius. The way he understands Math and Science is amazing and I said that parents should focus on what he is good at, so that he could overcome what happened in a less problematic way. But back to what we were talking about: his teachers would never know it. They aren’t trained to distinguish children, their skills, not have to turn to when facing this kind of situation. Reviews boil down to tell if the child is "good" or "bad", there is nothing that child characteristics highlight or the like.
Thinking about it, it is clear that the most interesting way is to teach teachers to educate these children. And the government has to help in this task by creating exchanges between universities’s studies and the daily practices of teachers on this issue. But I see Vietnam as a country that is evolving. I believe that they will have an organization that will teach teachers and that will change the way of teaching disable children. They have something in Hanoi like that. A university that teaches people how to educate and live with special children. There is a movement, it's just not fast enough.
I hope the kids I work with become able to be themselves. I hope they can be children.
All children are equal, they only learn in different ways. All of them. That's what always talk to teachers: Every child learns. No matter who, no matter the skills and weaknesses they have, they just learn in different ways. And our job as teachers is to be this incredibly creative person who finds the exact strategy to help each child. And that is the hardest part of it.
That's why being a teacher is so difficult: You can not just be a teacher, you have to know the social service, being a therapist and all sorts of things. It seems a lot to me. If they could rely on the proper help, the system would work better.
It’s important to me that these children are happy. And families and teachers also rejoice in these achievements.
If I could ask something to the teachers of the world is to continue fighting. There is a reason why they decided to become teachers. There is a reason that made them choose this profession. Surely you aren’t here for the money. Because if that is it... I go forward: there is no money there.
Every day will be different. You will always feel tired, go home and sleep. But at the end of a week, for sure there will be that moment when you felt proud and it is in this space-time moment you should grab.