She is a perfectly beautiful child with the sweetest smile that never quite reaches her eyes. Sometimes she comes to class with her legs in braces. Her dad often waits outside her class for her, to carry her bag, and walk her home. He looks tired, but ever so kind. She comes out the classroom and sees him there and gives the biggest grin before grabbing his hand and pulling him towards the door. Sometimes I find if I think about it too much, I can imagine I can start to hear my heart crack.
I watched her last year, as she worked terribly hard to understand: nose almost touching the book, finger moving slowly across the page, followed by an errant whisp of hair, as she tried to say the words that we were learning at the time. After a few short minutes, exhausted from concentrating, her head would lift, with her chin tilting towards the ceiling. Her hands would settle in her lap, and she would escape to somewhere else. Somewhere we will never get to go.
You can imagine then, that I was glad, when I walked into one of my classes in the first week of school, to find her sitting in the front row, with that sweet smile plastered to her face. “Lamazi gogo, rogora khar?” I asked her. I was rewarded with the smile widening, and becoming more toothy, followed by a boisterous; “kargard, tqven?” This was the most this little girl had said to me since meeting her in April and I felt like she had just recited the whole of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be..” soliloquy from Act 3 Scene 1. I was thrilled.
I cannot define exactly what disabilities this little girl has. There is something both physical and mental, but I cannot and well, frankly, would not label her by them. Naming the problem seems inconsequential as I am not a doctor, nor therapist. However, she is one of the many children benefiting from the inclusive education system at the school I work at in Tbilisi. And this, is what I wanted to talk about.
I did a PGCE in 2010, and part of what we were required to learn about was inclusive education. In theory it sounds wonderful, bringing children of all levels of skills and abilities together in one classroom and teaching them all as equals, but in practise, well in practise, I have not seen it, until I came to this school. We have children with a variety of disabilities attending classes with kids who society classes as “normal” and it seems to be working.
I made a few discoveries in the first week. I found the special-ed centre, in which we have a psychologist and someone who I think is an occupational therapist and they do one-on-one lessons with the children who require it. I was also sad to discover that the attitudes of some teachers towards these kids was not what one would hope for. I made mention of a little boy who I would guess was autistic, and her response was not what I expected. I can sort of understand where she is coming from, if you are a single teacher in a class of 30, no one is getting the attention they require or deserve. It is also a lot of additional work on the teacher’s part, and if it is not their passion, well then of course it would be easier to just not have to do it. Perhaps there will be a shift in her beliefs, perhaps not, but there are enough other teachers who think its a great idea to keep it working the way it is supposed to.
I know this topic doesn’t relate specifically to English teaching in Georgia, but it is something that fascinates me, and I am so glad I am in a school that is making the effort to include everyone.
Writing all of this then, got me thinking about an NGO I visited in the summer with a friend. It is called First Step Georgia (FSG). It is a school/care centre for kids with special needs. The school was started in 1998 in response to discovering an orphanage in the town of Kaspi in a terrible state, and the 100 or more severely disabled children there, in an even worse one. FSG then dedicated its first years of existence to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of these children found here. They have now evolved to incorporate a broader range of activities which you can read about here.
We got to have a tour of the center from the head psychologist, Giorgi, whose ideas of teaching and therapy, I found to be rather revolutionary (not that I am an expert or have any idea about how to run a special needs care center). I was really impressed with what I heard, and what I saw. Most especially, the fact that one of their end aims was to prepare these children to be able to cope in a mainstream school environment; IE sending them to public schools and integrating them into the classroom.
Giorgi, shared with us the things they had tried, that had not worked and how they had gone about changing them. He shared the challenges and successes and I found it all very inspiring. I left there feeling very positive about the future of these beautiful kids in Georgia who may previously have fallen through the cracks but are actually being given a fighting chance at life.
It’s always the small things that make a difference so I encourage you not to hesitate if you have a thought or a word of encouragement, some donations of food or even a couple of spare laris you’d like to give them. No offering is too small I have found. We are all blessed in some way. Pay it forward.