Element of Compassion: An Interview with Opal Brar| By Nikita-Kiran Singh

Education Visionaries in Edmonton Part III

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of interviews conducted with educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole.  By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

A graduate in Elementary Education, Opal Brar has been teaching for nearly fifteen years, now working at Evansdale School.  For the past three years, she has been teaching Early Education, a program offered by the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) for children aged three to five with severe special needs.  Early Education serves as early intervention to prepare children for future inclusive learning, whereby students of different learning abilities are integrated into mainstream classrooms.  During our conversation, Ms. Brar insisted, “I’m not an expert!  I learn as I go; I learn as I do.  But every year I add to my professional toolbox, and the foundational stuff doesn’t change – I love to work with kids, and they know that, and I think that they feel that.  They are very intuitive.”  Ms. Brar’s compassion, patience and love for learning serve as a model for the kind of empathy our world requires today.

Nikita: What do you feel are the most valuable qualities in an educator?

Ms. Brar: I think that you have to love working with children, and be patient, because children know who enjoys being with them, and who doesn’t.  The education process has to inspire you, so you are inspired to use your imagination and creativity and to spark learning in children.  It’s also important to be prepared to teach children in many different ways.  Some children are better visually, some children are better through tactile means, like sensory activities, and some respond really well to auditory things such as music.  You have to figure out where they are, and your instruction has to be differentiated.  You have to teach each child as an individual, and then look at your end goal. 

Nikita: One valuable aspect of diversity in relation to children with learning disabilities lies in its potential to increase societal empathy.   How does the Early Education program facilitate that process?

Ms. Brar: If I were to speak to that in my own role as an Early Education teacher, yes, we encounter a lot of diversity as far as the children who come to us in our program.  Our goal with Edmonton Public is to integrate these children into mainstream education, or inclusive education, and to work with them to try to help them with their delay, whatever specifically that might be.  It might be a communication delay, and we may work with occupational therapists to deal with sensory issues, or with physical therapists to help children improve their gross motor abilities.  So we have lots of different helpful consultants available to help us, and we all work together as a team to try to work with each child at their level and try to help them improve on their specific delay, and try to get them ready – for later, for kindergarten, for grade one, for life.

Even though it is a specialized classroom, because Edmonton Public Schools is working towards kids eventually entering the mainstream, it’s a really good first step to have the sites within the elementary schools.  The other children in the regular or typical classrooms get to see these little ones all the time, so I think that it does create awareness and empathy, and vice versa.  These little ones look at typical children and they are provided models – models of typical language, or models of typical behaviour – and they get to see what we’re looking towards as well. 

Nikita: What challenges do you face in terms of teaching in the classroom and addressing existing attitudes towards students with learning disabilities?

Ms. Brar: There’s definitely more than one!  Sometimes children with learning disabilities are very stigmatized, because perhaps it wasn’t always about inclusive education – it was about “Special Ed” classrooms and keeping them separate.  And so, as we’re moving towards inclusive education, slowly the stigma that surrounds students with learning disabilities is fading a little bit more with time.

But children with disabilities are still quite stigmatized, and people don’t understand, and they fear what they don’t understand.  So those attitudes are very real.  Within my classroom, we work in a very strong partnership with parents and families.  It can be hard because sometimes parents and families think that we’re going to “fix” their children.  But it’s not about “fixing” them or “curing” them, it’s just about helping them be the best that they can be as an individual.  And I think that if you take that pressure off of the plate, that we’re not trying to make them resemble their typical peers, it’s more about making them as functional as they can be as individuals.  So attitudes – parent attitudes, the attitudes of other children – those can be challenges.

As a teacher, budget cuts do affect the amount of support that we are able to provide.  Within my classroom, currently, there is a teacher, a speech/language pathologist, and an educational assistant, but sometimes that’s not enough.  We would love more budget support to be able to provide for support to the learning of our children.  As a teacher you love your job, and you love your little ones, and you do your best to try to get them everything that they need and want, but sometimes you’re just one person.  It’s a difficult job that I have, it is very difficult, but it is very rewarding.  And because they are so little, we are doing everything from toileting, to feeding, to dressing, and we’re playing, we’re teaching, we’re doing so much in that little precious timeslot that we have with them every day.  We’re so lucky that most of our parents are very, very supportive.  It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.

Nikita: How could our education system be improved in order to better address the needs of Early Education students, and the process of their integration into other classrooms?

Ms. Brar: An increase in funding would allow Early Education sites to improve their programs to better meet the needs of students.  Sometimes once these kids are integrated into mainstream classrooms, they still continue to require additional support, and unfortunately, funding may not allow that, and that’s scary, because we don’t want these little ones to fall through the cracks.  So I think that budget support is huge.  It gives us an increase in staffing, and that’s important when you’re dealing with little ones with learning disabilities.  Some of our little ones require a one-on-one adult to child ratio; they require physical assistance to perform every task.  When you’ve got twelve children in a classroom and only three adults, and out of those twelve children, five or six of them require one-on-one support, something’s going to give.  You’re not able to provide as much one-on-one support as you would want to.

The wonderful thing about Early Education is the fact that it’s exactly that – it’s early.  It’s early intervention.  We’re getting these kids early.  And they are so stimulable for change and improvement and for learning; they’re like little sponges.  So if you can get them early, you can do a lot.  If there was greater knowledge or education given to parents so that they could recognize earlier if their child isn’t hitting milestones like they should be, and we can catch them early, that’s huge.  If more parents were able to catch their children early, that’s helping the kids.  Unfortunately, some of these kids aren’t caught early by adults in their lives, and they come into the school system in kindergarten level and that’s when the teacher may feel that there are challenges that need to be addressed and assessments that need to take place.  Unfortunately sometimes there’s just not enough manpower for that to take place, so by the time supports are in place for little ones they might already be in grade one. 

Nikita: What do you enjoy the most about your teaching position?

Ms. Brar: Oh, I enjoy the little things.  I am very lucky because I get to see a lot of successes, and I so enjoy those moments of spark.  Like the little one who’s been completely non-verbal all school year, and then in November says, “Bubbles.”  And you just think, “Wow!”  Or a little one who didn’t seemingly attend to any of our activities and then all of a sudden is humming a song that we sing.  Those are the moments that make it worth it for me.  I’ve had parents tell me, “This is not the same child that started school in September.”  They do take in so much, and because we are catching them early, we get to see so much success and improvement, so that’s really, really gratifying.  They need us; they’re just itty bitty, and they need us.  And I am so lucky, I get to work with kids that really, really need, and once you pour that love and that effort into them, you get back, and that’s valuable. 

Nikita: Do you have any particularly memorable or meaningful experiences related to teaching?

Ms. Brar: Oh, that’s a hard one.  I have a memorable or meaningful experience every day.  That’s the joy of working with children – you get to see something memorable or special every day.  Friday, one of my little ones, who was nonverbal all last year – this is his second year in the Early Education program – said my name.  It was amazing.  As we were getting them ready to get onto the bus to go home Friday after school, he said my name.

Nikita: What is your main objective as a teacher?

Ms. Brar: My main objective is to help my students become as functional as they can be as individuals.  That might look different for one child than it would for the other. I was lucky enough through professional development funding to be able to attend the autism conference held here in Edmonton every year, and I got to hear Temple Grandin’s mom speak.  When her mom started to notice when Temple was 2 or 3 years old that she did not feel her daughter was developing typically, she was told that it was because she was cold as a mother, and that the best place for her little one was in an institution for the mentally retarded.  Now, Temple Grandin has a doctorate, and she’s a renowned speaker for education about autism.  So I think, “Wow, we’ve come such a long way from the days that she was two years old.”  There’s so much that these children can do.  Temple Grandin’s mom said that she believes we’re all on the autism spectrum; we all have quirks.  Some of us have more quirks than others, some of us have less.  So I don’t think that it’s about making kids like a cookie cutter and all the same.  Yes, certain milestones typically occur at certain times, and yes, children hit those milestones at different times. But I think that generally, if you just try to help them be the best that they can be, you’ve done really well.

Nikita: What was the best advice you were given as a student, and what message would you like to send out to any student?

Ms. Brar: I don’t know if I remember words, per se, but I remember the feelings, and I think that’s what sticks with me – the positive feelings.  I remember feeling smart, being made to feel capable, and my teachers would make me feel confident, and celebrate successes.

What message I would say, and it’s so cliché, is be the best that you can be.  I almost guarantee you that these precious little beings want to be good, and they want to do their best.  They just need somebody to help them with that, and their best might look different from somebody else’s best.  My little guy in my classroom this year with cerebral palsy is confined to a wheelchair.  His best is going to look different than somebody else’s best, but as long as he does his best, I’m totally happy with that.