Private tutor among 67 to graduate as special needs educators

Over 23 years of working as a private tutor, Ms Sharmila Gopalakrishnan has often come across children with learning difficulties.

The 42-year-old, who teaches English, has seen students who cried in class because they could not answer questions and others who found it difficult to concentrate on what was being taught.

"I tried to understand their problems and put myself in their shoes, and told them that no matter what issue they faced, I would be there to help," she said. "But all the while, I felt I wanted to do more."

Ms Sharmila decided to take up training in special needs education last October so that she could make a more positive impact on her students.

Yesterday, she was one of 67 special needs educators to graduate from the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) Academy.

The school, which is in its 11th year, has trained 577 individuals who have graduated from its master's and diploma programmes.

Ms Sharmila, who earned a postgraduate certificate in special educational needs and additional learning needs, said she was heartened by the skills she picked up from the faculty and her peers.

While teaching in a group setting, she says, she is now able to identify any students who are unable to grasp a concept and dedicate more attention to them while asking the others to complete an exercise.

She has also picked up methods to make a curriculum easier to understand by using phonics, pictures and interactive activities like vocabulary games, she said.

The DAS Academy is the training arm of social service agency DAS, which supports people with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties.

DAS, in a statement yesterday, said that an estimated 10 per cent of every population has dyslexia, and that one student in every classroom has dyslexia severe enough to warrant intervention.

These students may also have conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia and Asperger's syndrome.

Dyscalculia involves difficulties in learning mathematics, such as in counting and understanding the relationship between numbers, and Asperger's syndrome is a form of autism.

In a speech at the graduation ceremony yesterday, the acting head of DAS Academy, Ms Siti Mariam Daud, commended the graduates for their efforts.

She said: "With the innovative strategies and resources that (the graduates) have learnt, they are well positioned to deliver quality intervention not just in physical classrooms but also in virtual settings.

"I am also confident that graduates who are parents of children with specific learning difficulties can realise their goals of providing better support in their children's home-based intervention, which has become a key component of learning in the new normal."

Given the restrictions on physical classes during the Covid-19 pandemic, DAS Academy has adopted a blended mode of online and on-site lessons.

These flexible options, Ms Sharmila said, help more mid-career professionals to embrace special needs education.

"As someone who embraces lifelong learning, I felt the classes were engaging and interesting. With virtual learning becoming commonplace during the pandemic, special needs educators are extremely important in helping children with specific learning difficulties. We need more such teachers to come forward."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2021, with the headline 'Private tutor among 67 to graduate as special needs educators'. Subscribe