Teaching can be both a challenge and a reward, as handling children can sometimes relieve or induce stress. Children with special needs, however, require a different approach; unlike their peers, these children may have conditions that inhibit their ability to learn or require a different kind of learning altogether. In these cases, some parents opt to take a step further by hiring someone who can closely monitor the educational development of their children.

Enter the shadow teacher—an instructor who works with children that have intellectual and learning disabilities. The title of shadow teacher may be a mystery for some, as most conventional educational systems often don’t have them among their ranks. But these individuals are dedicated to helping those whose needs are perhaps neglected by standard learning systems, undertaking a unique and difficult task that requires them to go beyond the mere act of teaching.

Challenges abound

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is managing the complex and dynamic behavior of students, a predicament that shadow teachers are not spared from. A shadow teacher of five years, Eriza Jane Gingoyon shares in Cebuano, “We should know what their needs—their special needs—are; we should know how to manage their behavior.” 

Much like being a traditional teacher in a classroom setting, being a shadow teacher requires a lot of patience and understanding, as well as problem solving skills to deal with the dynamic and at times unpredictable nature of a student’s behavior. The specific needs of each child also needs to be taken into account. “One of the reasons why these students have shadow teachers is that they actually have behavioral and emotional difficulties that need to be addressed,” explains Eric Namok, who has been a shadow teacher for three years.

Ruel Liporada, a shadow teacher for three years at University of San Carlos-Montessori Academy (USC-MA), agrees with Namok’s sentiment, saying, “I thought I was already patient enough. That’s when I learned I need to be more patient, and at the same time, I also need to be wise.” One of his most challenging experiences as a shadow teacher was when he had a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It [was] hard to get the concentration of the child, since it’s his nature to move around a lot,” he expounds, adding that this made it difficult for him to connect with his student initially.

Beyond learning

But the job itself is not always a struggle, as these shadow teachers have found in their experience. The moments they share with their students create a strong bond between them that is a unique aspect of the profession, and offers a different learning opportunity not just for the student but for the teacher as well. A blend of professionalism and filiality is fostered; from regular schooldays, to tutor sessions on weekends, shadow teachers spend a bit more time with their students than most regular teachers do on a weekly basis. 

“Feeling ko we’re like siblings already,” Gingoyon shares about her relationship with her student. When asked about her relationship with the student’s family, she says that they treat her almost as if she were her student’s sister, but she clarifies that “the professionalism is still there.”

As a shadow teacher, resolving challenging situations also requires one to think out of the box. As Namok testifies, “I learned everything; to be efficient, effective as a shadow teacher. Basically, I am able to go out of my comfort zone and use my own strategies in teaching a child with special needs.” Namok elaborates on these strategies by explaining that when his student—who has autism—throws a tantrum, he isolates them to prevent them from harming themselves or others around them. He then follows this up with a “deep pressure massage” to try and help his student relax. 

Through it all, mutual respect and understanding is critical to successfully correcting any misbehaviors. Namok shares that it is important to set boundaries while developing trust with his student, “I always show to my student that I am firm but with kindness.”

Reasons to care

Being an educator is often considered a labor of love. The job undoubtedly requires skill and dedication, often offering very little in return. Ultimately, what drives people to take on this daunting task is the passion that lies in helping those who need some guidance—with special needs students perhaps being some of the most in need of said guidance, especially in earlier stages of their lives.

For some, this passion stems from a shift in their perspective. Seth Melendez, a USC-MA shadow teacher four years deep into the job, says that he used to have a very negative view of individuals with special needs, admitting that he had once bullied them at a younger age. It took some time before he realized that these were real people with struggles they had to undergo because of their conditions—and that he could play a part in helping them.

“I indulged myself into teaching,” he says. “I [ended] up loving what I am now.”

For others, the drive to teach is born out of experiences shared with friends and loved ones. Namok’s first experience delving into the field of special education was in interacting with his best friend’s brother, who had autism. “When I got my preservice in college, happily I was able to teach [him] in Zapatera [Elementary School]; he was my student,” Namok shares, recounting his experience with preservice, a form of practicum or on-the-job training for education students. “I am very happy that I was able to help him…that’s why I love teaching, especially those with special needs.”

Despite the challenges of being a shadow teacher, for those deeply passionate about teaching, the profession remains meaningful and worthwhile. “The [most] rewarding part is the independence [of the child]—when [the child] is able to build a sense of responsibility on [their] own,” Liporada expresses. 

“I [ended] up loving my job because I can see that the child grows, and I really want him to be independent,” shares Gingoyon, a reminder of how these people remain driven by the same force that pushes any good educator; the knowledge that in the end, the fruit of the work they put in manifests in the growth and independence their students develop through their teachings.

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