An Insider's Story

International School Learning Support Teachers: An Insider’s Story

October 25, 2017


Learning Support, or teaching students with Special Education Needs is consistently referred to as one of the most difficult jobs in teaching. And with good reason. Typically, we work with the most challenged students. This can mean anything from a simple learning disability to severe mental health disorders or life-threatening issues. Often it includes complicated family situations with parents who are struggling to accept their child’s challenges. I have even worked with students who were recovering from traumatic brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. Parents have broken down into tears at meetings, and students have flung chairs across the room in frustration.

Learning Support

But working with students is not the hardest part of my job. It’s the best.

No matter what challenges they face, they always rise to the occasion. Even when they fail to reach their own expectations, they often surpass mine. I am continually awed, inspired, and warmed by their perseverance and grit.

Ironically, the hardest part is working with the non-challenged. Teachers, by nature, tend to be highly intelligent people. For many of them, learning was easy and pleasurable. This makes it harder for them to empathize with students who don’t like school.  For the most challenged students to be successful, they need everyone on their team. On the same page, in most cases, it’s easy to get everyone to agree that a child needs support.  However, rarely will everyone agree on the best way to do it. This part is the most challenging. For a slightly hyperbolic metaphor, think of America’s response to mass shootings. Everyone agrees something needs to be done. Nobody agrees on how to do it.

Learning Support

The truth is, many international schools lag behind most public schools in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia when it comes to dealing with students with special needs. There are many reasons for this; the most obvious being the strict laws governing rights of the disabled in those countries. Most international schools exist in gray areas when it comes to disability rights and education, thereby allowing them to bypass laws protecting people with learning disabilities.

My current school, for example, has a special education department with a staff of five trained educators. However, for a public school of our size, our department would be woefully insufficient. We lack therapists, specialized counselors, psychologists, and other professionals that would otherwise be provided by a public school district. We do have IEPs and 504 plans, but as recent as five years ago we did not. Still, we are generally considered a well-equipped school.

Sadly, this is not the case in most international schools. Many do not have special education departments at all, and teachers are not equipped with the right kinds of training or support to deal with special needs. You might be lucky to find a school that acknowledges the existence of learning disabilities and has basic protocols in place.

Learning Support

When looking to work as an international school special education teacher it’s important that you talk to people other than the administrator. Ideally, you should talk to other teachers and ask how they support students with learning disabilities. Be sure to ask your prospective school about local rules and regulations governing learning disabilities. Also be cautious of administrators that want to grow their programs, as you may be signing on for more than you bargained for. Unless you have a burning desire to single-handedly create and manage a special education department, you should also be careful around these kinds of offers.

Special education is experiencing tremendous growth in international schools now, offering many unique opportunities. But with it, comes heavy responsibility. If you’re a special education teacher looking to work abroad, preparing yourself for a rewarding, yet challenging time.

This article was submitted to us by an International School Community member.

Using our unique Comment Search feature on our website (premium membership access needed), we found 29 comments that have the keyword “Learning Support” in them, and 20 comments that had the word “Special Needs” in them.

Here are some comments that shown a positive light on Learning Support programs at international schools:

“The St. Petersburg campus has recently added a learning support component to support teachers, parents and students.” – Anglo-American School of St. Petersburg (38 Total Comments)

“There are also student assistants. Student assistants are assigned to certain students or groups of students to offer them learning support. They move with these learning support students as they move classes and/or grade. Currently there are three student assistants at TIS one in Primary School and two in Middle School.” – Tokyo International School (63 Total Comments)

“The students are very delightful and respectful. It is a mixed ability school and there is a good number of students who need some support. Learning support has improved over the last few years, but it is still not adequate for all those who need it. The students are truly delightful and polite.” – Somersfield Academy (44 Total Comments)

“There are co-teachers in primary and learning support teachers throughout the school (in most subjects), depending on the specific needs of students in the group. This is an inclusive school that requires quite a high teacher/student ratio.” – Hong Kong Academy (67 Total Comments)

“We are in our sixth year of becoming an inclusive school, with about 2.5% of our population being special needs children–including Down Syndrome and Autistic students. There are three RTI teams and a “transitions” classroom to support learners with challenges (and our classroom teachers).” – International Community School Addis Ababa (80 Total Comments)

“The school offers a bilingual program for students in grades K to 12. DMS has a fully self-contained special needs Division within the main school.” – Dasman Model School (24 Total Comments)