Samantha, founder and principal of The Radiant Spectrum, shares her experiences as a special needs educator teaching piano to children with special needs – from the challenging moments to the happy ones, filled with heartwarming anecdotes.
Have you always been a special needs educator?
No, I haven’t! I had a degree in Finance (Business), but I did not find the industry nor the work rewarding. I had always been teaching music on the side and decided to venture into it full-time. That evolved into only teaching piano to children with special needs, and I have never looked back since.
Why did you decide to become a special needs educator?
I enjoy understanding how children learn things, more so for children with special needs. If a child can’t understand something, I believe there must be a better way that I can explain things or deconstruct the concept for the child.
I enjoyed this process when I was working with regular children but I found so much more joy when working with children with special needs. A lot of our special children have the potential to learn but they may be overlooked or written off. They can thrive with a well-designed curriculum and when we give them a little more time and effort.
Working with children with special needs can be challenging, especially when they are having consistent meltdowns. What motivates you to go on during challenging times?
What makes it “challenging” is usually when I cannot achieve whatever I had planned for the lessons because of meltdowns or unexpected behavioural reactions. There are also times we are trying our very best as teachers but nothing is working. In my earlier days teaching piano to children with special needs, I would lose confidence in myself when a lesson did not go well. I would take things very personally, and I would think that when a lesson “failed”, it means that I had failed.
With time, I learned to remind myself that an unsuccessful lesson is not my fault, neither is it the child’s fault. In fact, when a child is having a bad day, he or she could actually already be trying his or her best. They are usually not trying to be naughty or rebellious, but they could be going through something we cannot comprehend at first instance as neurotypical people. I will try to put myself in their shoes – what are they going through that I can try to understand or relate to?
Another thing I do for very bad and challenging days is to just discard all expectations I have had of the lesson and start afresh. When I remove my own expectations of a successful lesson, I am able to manage my emotions better and, consequently, my student’s behaviours better.
How do you build rapport and trust with your students?
I am answering going to answer them separately because I think they are distinct, and each deserves its own answer.
When a child has an interest in something that is musical, I will usually encourage and nurture it. There are quite a number of my kids who are musical (or it could also be my “musicality” rubbing off on them), and they have lots of random things they want to try.
For example, one of my students wanted to recreate his school’s morning assembly routine, consisting of the National Anthem, pledge, school song, and student creed. I typed out the Singapore National Anthem and his school song, and taught them to him. I also gave him the space to do a recording of his “morning assembly routine” on video.
For another student, he enjoys listening and playing songs from shows that he watches. These shows are often not mainstream cartoons, and he tends to enjoy the ending credit melodies more than the theme songs of the shows. These songs are slightly more obscure, so I would have to listen to them and figure out the notes for him to learn and play.
Another student had a “season” of enjoying national anthems of countries from all around the world – so I went to learn the Russian and German national anthems too.
Recognising my students’ interests and exploring these interests with them helps me to build rapport. The children now feel seen and heard when they are otherwise thought to be noisy, distracted, or unfocused.
Trust takes time to build. Trust is also something that is easily broken.
As much as possible, I aim to be a trustworthy teacher. If I promise you that I will prepare a song for you, I must keep my promise. If I say “ok, we will only play this song one time”, I will not make you repeat it.
I must keep my word.
Trust is also linked to RESPECT. I think that if someone respects you, he/she will tend to trust you more. I also think trust and respect work both ways. At TRS, if a student makes a request, we tend to oblige. It is not because we are very easy-going “cool” teachers, but because we want to demonstrate to the child and affirm him/ her “Good job communicating your needs and wants to me. I hear you, and I respect you.”
What do you enjoy most about The Radiant Spectrum?
When I first started teaching piano to children with special needs, I felt quite alone. Whenever I encountered problems, such as behavioural issues like task avoidance, or poor scaffolding of a concept, I never had anyone to discuss it with. I definitely do not consider myself to be the best teacher around, and I was constantly failing.
Now, I have a team that I can discuss things with. We have more brains working on the same goal, and that is definitely more enjoyable than working at it alone.
I also enjoy the fact that we have an odd bunch of teachers here. We are very diverse, and I think that makes us a stronger team.
Lastly, what is one thing you would like everyone to know about children with special needs?
Recently, I have been listening to the song “A Million Dreams” constantly as we are preparing for a year-end performance. This song probably sums up what I want to express. I strongly encourage you to listen to it and imagine a child with special needs saying or singing these words. Click here to listen to it.
‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colours fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see [I wonder what is the world they envision? And what can I do for them?]
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
Oh a million dreams for the world we’re gonna make
However big, however small
Let me be part of it all
Share your dreams with me
You may be right, you may be wrong
But say that you’ll bring me along
To the world you see
To the world I close my eyes to see
I close my eyes to see
You can read more about Teacher Samantha’s journey on how she began teaching piano to children with special needs here.