From TA to Special Ed Teacher

For Patrick Deschatelets and Manon Fecteau, working as a teaching assistant is a step on the road to becoming a special education teacher.

By Tracy Morey

In two years, when Patrick Deschatelets completes his degree, he'll be among the first deaf francophones to become a teacher of the deaf in Ontario. Currently a teaching assistant (TA) at the Centre Jules-Léger in Ottawa - the school from which he graduated - Deschatelets helps teachers prepare materials for elementary students and assists the teachers of an eight-year-old deaf child and a 13-year-old who is blind and deaf.

"The older child has no communication, so we use tactile LSQ (Québec sign language)," Deschatelets explains. "The younger child is partially paralyzed and needs to express himself more, so I do gestures and sign language words he can mimic. It is not possible to teach core subjects to these students. The focus is on life skills, such as Braille and sign language."

It's not frustrating, says Deschatelets, because he always sees progress in the children's development. "Besides, I have a lot of patience and I'm motivated to get them communicating with the world."

Once a week, he also teaches a night class in LSQ for parents. "It's a rich and interesting language and parents are surprised at how involved they get."

Students Teach

"Teaching is the best way to use my communication skills..."

The TA, now in his third year of work at the centre, meets with teachers monthly to plan themes and discuss the visual materials required to get concepts across.

Deschatelets has learned a great deal from his young students. "I explain something and often, they don't get it, so I have to take another route. It's the exchange that gets them there. Following the child's way of communicating is key to our success," says Deschatelets.

One of the major challenges Deschatelets and staff at Jules-Léger face is having deaf children in residence, away from their families all week. "It's a judgment call we make carefully. The deaf community is so strong, and it has its own cultural values. Often, deaf children can be more isolated and less communicative if they live at home, so we feel the residential approach is best for most children," he says.

Deschatelets was born in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, and his deafness wasn't diagnosed until he was 19 months old. A specialist suggested he be trained in oralism, which involved having the toddler practise one word aloud each week. Then his mother discovered the deaf community. "She saw a church mass done in sign language and decided this was a much better option," says Deschatelets.

Deschatelets commuted to Montreal for high school, played hockey and developed a passion for alpine skiing. A severe bout with asthma laid him low when he was 17 and he came home to Gatineau. Then his family discovered the Centre Jules-Léger, a 30-minute drive away, and he has never looked back.

To become a teaching assistant, Deschatelets picked up some university credits, took a wide range of courses and work placements and completed a deafness program at the University of Ottawa. "Teaching is the best way to use my communication skills," says Deschatelets, "and using language effectively is my goal."

Had to Volunteer

When her hyperactive five-year-old reported he was the best-behaved child in his class, Manon Fecteau concluded it must be a terribly lively class.

"I just had to volunteer to help," says the mother of three, whose experience was a real asset in a room full of extra-high-energy children. Fecteau went on to help out in other classes at the Academie de la Moraine in Richmond Hill, which serves francophone students from the Greater Toronto Area.

Four years after she'd done intensive volunteer work at the school, a job posting appeared for a teaching assistant in the class where Fecteau was helping. The unilingual francophone native of Montréal, who had worked as a hairstylist, didn't apply because she "didn't have the papers." Then the teacher she worked with suggested that Fecteau's volunteer track record more than qualified her for the job.

Now into her second year as a TA, Fecteau works with double Grades 1/2 and 3/4, each of which has four or five children with behaviour problems. While the teacher works with Grade 1, she may do reading with Grade 2, with a special eye on those who have trouble concentrating. There are only eight students in the Grade 3/4, so the four students with problems "can work as a team." Fecteau's role is to assist the teacher, organize class trips and materials and give specific help to individual children.

Take Time to Listen

"...and using language effectively is my goal."

It's an easier workload than last year, when Fecteau was responsible for several children with disruptive behaviour problems that required a lot of attention. "I'm back to little cases, where the children's behaviour problems simply tend to involve difficulty in groups. Though these students can disrupt the class, it's possible to teach them respect for others and the environment. If a child is feeling restless, it's usually just a matter of going out together into the hall, to the gym or for a drink of water."

Her best advice: "Listen as much as you can, even though there is less and less time to do so." And take even more time to listen to children with ADHD. Fecteau recalls a student who resisted holidays and weekends. "We discovered that he really liked school because we listened to him here."

Fecteau says she learns something every day with the children. "You can imagine after a holiday everyone is more hyper, more agitated. We have to listen more, calm them more."
One trick is deep breathing-take the child aside and take three deep breaths together. "It calms both of us and they know it."

The teaching assistant credits her success to "great training-I had good coaches in the teachers I worked with." She is currently taking correspondence courses through Toronto's Collège Boréal and expects to have her credentials for teaching assistant to children in difficulty within two years. Three years after that she hopes to be a teacher.

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