Section 23 teacher Vesna Filiplic works one-on-one with Tawni King, 20, who is working on her high school diploma at Rosalie Hall while raising a child. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Special teachers fill special needs

  • January 24, 2013

TORONTO - The rigours of a regular classroom can be too much for some students. They struggle to cope for a variety of reasons, be they social or emotional, mental health or medical needs.

That’s where the Section 23 Care, Treatment, Custody and Correctional Program becomes necessary to keep students with intensive needs from becoming marginalized.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board employs 21 teachers to aid in the success of these struggling students.

“Students who struggle are the most marginalized,” said Don Reid, supervising principal of the TCDSB’s Section 23 program. “It can be very challenging but it can be very rewarding to see students who weren’t making the grade …. in mainstream schools succeed in a smaller setting.”

The program is mandated under Ontario’s Education Act for students who for various reasons are unable to attend regular schools. The board has created partnerships with 12 community agencies and institutions to provide the program.

“We’re dealing with students that might have mental health issues or social issues that go beyond what our mainstream schools can offer,” said Reid. “We’re providing students in care and treatment (programs) academic support who otherwise couldn’t be in a mainstream school.”

The Section 23 teachers work in conjunction with public board counterparts to provide academic support to students in third party treatment and care facilities. Among these agencies, which support Catholic students at 17 locations across the city, are Rosalie Hall, the Child Development Institute and Covenant House.

A Section 23 teacher will see anywhere from six to 10 children per class where a regular classroom averages about 23 students.

While most of the academic struggles of those enrolled in the program could be addressed in a mainstream classroom through resource and special education programs, said Reid, the program offers individual treatment and care based on a student’s specific situation. That’s why Section 23 teachers must have special education qualifications and two years experience working with special needs students prior to applying to the program.

The pregnant teens and young mothers who Vesna Filiplic teaches at Rosalie Hall, a Scarborough pregnancy support centre, are the type of students facing non-academic challenges in life which ultimately affect their grades.

“Many of them had challenges in some aspects of their lives, many of them have had challenges academically and when you are sitting with them and working on math for example, and they finally get it, then that is very rewarding,” said Filiplic. “Working in a section program allows you to teach students in a highly supported environment. It’s really the model of how the education system should be run in that it tends to the needs of these students.”

But there are limitations to this model for Filiplic and two other teachers at Rosalie Hall. Course variety is inferior to that in a mainstream school. And while the student/teacher ratio may on the surface seem less challenging, teachers must teach in a way customized to each student’s needs and abilities.

“You may be teaching multi-grades, multi-levels (and) multi-subjects with a number of different students,” she said.

“You have to change gears very quickly to move from one student to the next, keeping their individual learning styles in mind and to be able to do that regularly and to maintain your compassion and patience.”

Filiplic said she needs to be more flexible, organized and creative than those in mainstream schools.

What Filiplic doesn’t have a challenge doing is motivating her students — the life the student is nurturing is doing that for her.

“I always ask them why are you doing this and they all say, ‘Well I’m doing this for my child,’ ” she said. “They’ve made a commitment to their education for themselves, for their future and for the future of their children.” In Josef Balazic’s classroom, which is partnered with the Child Development Institute — an organization that offers programs for at-risk children — motivation is his primary challenge. His students, who struggle with mental health and social issues, do not have the same drive as the Rosalie Hall girls caring for another’s life.

“Motivating students who are often learning two or more grade levels below their abilities is the most challenging part of my job,” said Balazic. “Since many of the students have experienced severe trauma in their lives it has impacted their ability to communicate in terms of understanding instruction and effectively communicating their thoughts and feelings.”

This causes frustration in students who are struggling not only with the material itself but also with expressing their difficulties which if unaddressed could turn them off of education all together. Balazic said it’s all about overcoming the I-can’t-therefore-I don’t-want-to-try mentality. How Balazic does this is by humanizing himself through his own mistakes for his eight pre-teen students.

“When I make a mistake while teaching I admit it and model the correction explaining that it’s a part of the learning process,” said the teacher known as “Mr. B,” another means of humanizing himself. “The students really respect that. Often when a student voices their frustration after making a mistake, another student will invariably chime in and say something like, ‘Hey, don’t worry, it’s all good, Mr. B makes mistakes all the time too.’ ”

Then there is Eileen Barry who works with the homeless teens of Covenant House. For her it isn’t just about motivating her students, she also has to keep herself feeling positive while knowing very well that her students are teetering on the edge of society’s cracks.

“The most challenging part of my job is the daily awareness of and witness to suffering,” said Barry. “The youth who come into our classes … you never know if you will see them again the next day.” While the day-to-day challenges of a Section 23 teacher vary, the goal remains consistent.

“When the student comes into a section program the reintegration process is started right away,” said Reid. “We’re never happier than when we can release a student and they can be successful back in mainstream school. Ultimately all students want to be part of their peer group (so) we want to have them back into their most natural setting, which would be their home school.”


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