If you have been in parenting circles on social media lately, you may have come across the term, ‘shadow teacher’.
We speak to parents and experts about what this is and why a parent with a child who has special needs would need such a professional
Last month, the story of a 4-year-old boy with special needs was aired on a local TV station.
The boy’s parents had inquired if they could admit their son at a certain private school when schools re-opened last month.
They were forthright with the administration regarding their son’s condition and the fact that he cannot speak.
The school admitted the boy but on Day 4 of school, his parents were asked to withdraw him from the school or take him there two or three days a week.
This boy’s story exposes the reality faced by many parents of children with special needs who seek a good education.
When the story was aired, there were many discussions, especially on social media, around the alternatives that parents with such children had.
Many parents with special needs children said that they had hired ‘shadow teachers’ to help their children in regular academic set-ups.
Araka Elinet, a lecturer in the Autism Department at the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE), says that children with special needs require extra monitoring to fully utilise their capabilities in an academic set-up.
Extra monitoring means extra cost.
In the case of autistic children, an ideal key component of the child’s learning, Elinet points out, would be a shadow teacher.
“Simply put, a shadow teacher is one who implements instructions and recommendations given by the child’s teacher in the classroom,” he says.
It is a term not many have heard of unless you have been a long-term witness of the life and education of an autistic child.
We sought information on who a shadow teacher is, why some parents with autistic children felt they needed one and how they would be beneficial to a child’s education.
Naomi Nyambura is many things to autism.
She is a mother to a 12-year-old who has autism. She is also a special needs teacher.
In fact, she has been a shadow teacher herself, and is currently a trainer of shadow teachers.
“One of the characteristics of an autistic child is that they have very short attention span.
“They are easily distracted and struggle to maintain focus in class,” she says.
The primary work of a shadow teacher is to break down academic lessons to the child into a manner that will allow the child to understand better.
“Autistic children almost always fall behind in class academically. A shadow teacher mitigates this and helps the child keep up,” she says.
Nyambura’s son had been in school for just two terms when she noticed that he was not progressing academically.
“The school was not doing much with him. I took the initiative to talk with them and propose getting a shadow teacher for him,” she says.
The school accepted her proposal – provided that she took care of the teacher’s salary and allowances.
Few schools, Nyambura notes, have shadow teachers.
The burden, in many cases, fall on parents to procure and pay for the services of a shadow teacher.
This can be costly, as Jane Muiruri, a mother to two autistic children, notes.
Jane has paid as much as Sh30,000 monthly salary for a shadow teacher.
Another parent, Jaki Mathaga, has paid a shadow teacher as much as Sh52,000.
She notes: “A shadow teacher is not a nanny. A shadow teacher is trained. They have academic understanding and knowledge of what they would be helping the child understand in class.”
Muiruri says: “Our education system is not pro-children with intellectual disability as it should be.
“It is class-centred in the sense that one teacher attends to a whole class as opposed to just a few students.”
Elinet says the recommended teacher to student ratio for autistic children is 1:4.
This not being the case in many (if not all) schools, parents have to get shadow teachers to assist the children’s primary teacher in imparting academic lessons.
Without a shadow teacher, Nyambura says, the child will continue falling back in class and may never make any progress.
Watch over the child’s welfare
When Nyambura signed up a shadow teacher, it was for them to help with academics, “and also take care of his physical health, to some extent,” she says.
Just before she got the shadow teacher, her son’s welfare had hit rock bottom.
“He had not been potty-trained and the teachers did not know how to handle him. So, many times, he soiled himself and he would stay that way.
“He started suffering blisters and wounds on his private parts. The shadow teacher I got him, we agreed, would also ensure that he did not soil himself.
“The shadow teacher always prompted him to visit the toilet every 15 minutes or so so that he would be neat and clean in school,” Nyambura says.
Muiruri adds that the child’s safety should be important to the shadow teacher – though these are secondary roles.
An autistic child, she notes, is prone to accidents as their understanding of the dangers in the environment is not as good as that of a child who does not have autism.
“One of the symptoms of autism is intellectual disability. Some children may therefore not have proper understanding of what is dangerous and what is safe.
“They might put themselves in dangerous situations easily. The kind of games they play and how they play it might harm them.”
Many times, Nyambura’s son came back home from school with bruises.
Fearing that the child would not be safe, the school principal asked Nyambura not to allow the boy in school if she (the principal) was absent.
He also lost his belongings – like school uniform – easily. Or, he himself would just get lost within the school compound and he would have to looked for.
Be the child’s advocate against bullying
Muiruri takes note that this would be largely a secondary role of the shadow teacher.
However, it is important that the child is protected against bullying in school.
“The shadow teacher can help with this,” she notes.
Because the child is different, he might be picked on by his classmates, or even by teachers themselves – which happens when the child attends an integrated school with teachers who are not trained on to handle children with special needs.
Nyambura says, a shadow teacher should have a “calling” to the job.
Autistic children, she says, can be a handful. Therefore, a shadow teacher who is just doing the job for the money, might fail to go over and above their job description (which is primarily the child’s academics) to care for the learner.