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Learning on the job

Kathryn Kao

July 19, 2017

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Not many student teachers can say they've spent their day practicing karate, mastering new yoga poses and appreciating the arts.

But this was exactly how Sophie McKenzie, a special education major, spent her last couple of months as an undergraduate student in the College of Education.

Last February, when McKenzie arrived in Melbourne, Australia, she quickly learned that there was no such thing as a typical day at Andale Special School. Established in 1981, the small private school focuses on educating young students with a variety of special needs, from autism spectrum disorder to speech and language impairments.

"It has been absolutely amazing to observe and interact in a different education system," said McKenzie, who will begin her master's degree in special education this fall. "There are more than a million things I've learned over the course of my two months here in Australia, and I cannot wait to take every single one back to my own classroom."

As a participant of the Consortium for Overseas Student Teaching (COST) program, McKenzie could choose from over a dozen countries to visit. After briefly researching her options, she placed Australia at the top of her list.

"Australia was the most interesting because they actually have a set of standards that are specifically labeled for pre-transition and disability education," she said. "These standards are geared towards these students as opposed to the States where they're trying to mold the students to the standards."

During her time in Australia, McKenzie modified her teaching skills to meet the needs of each individual student. She flourished under the guidance of her mentor teacher, Judy Bridges, and had the opportunity to learn about the school's perceptual motor program (PMP), which works to improve language and movement.

To reduce their physical limitations and enhance a variety of academic and cognitive skills, her students often spent the mornings practicing modified yoga and meditation.

"These activities inspire both the left and right hemispheres in the brain every day," said Bridges. "We deal with different levels of anxiety daily, which changes the dynamics quite a bit, and so we've just had to adapt to that."

Because of Andale's ability to set their own curriculum, McKenzie could branch out and teach her students how to respond to verbal direction in a more engaging and creative manner. For example, one activity prompted her students to dribble a basketball around an obstacle course while calling out another student's name. By juggling more than one activity at a time, the students could work on developing both their verbal and motor skills.

In addition to enhancing her students' receptive and expressive communication skills, McKenzie also instructed them on fundamental courses like literacy, mathematics and social studies. She believes that the school's ability to create a curriculum specific to a special needs school population—instead of focusing on test scores and results—allows each student to learn and engage their passions in a unique learning environment.

"It's like a completely different education setting with the same goal to teach students to live the most functional and independent life they can," said McKenzie. "And with how enriched the environment is at Andale, there's just this opportunity for all the students to continue growing in every aspect. You can mold and modify to what the students want, are interested in and desire instead of forcing them to conform to a set schedule that we have each day."

Like many students who study abroad, McKenzie immersed herself in a completely new culture. She had the opportunity to enjoy a dinner cruise with her mentor teacher on the Yarra River and also visited Bali, Indonesia, Phillip Island and Queensland, Australia where she saw the Great Barrier Reef.

After teaching in Australia, McKenzie developed an interest in researching the effects of yoga and meditation on students with severe problem behavior or aggression. She said the progress her students made at Andale during the short time she was there gave her a completely new outlook on education.

"My participation in the COST program will definitely make me a better educator," said McKenzie. "Not only was my school supportive and welcoming, but how many other people in the world can say they got to travel around Australia while student teaching? The ability to experience and work in a completely different education system and culture has been one that I will take with me everywhere. There are no words to describe how thankful I am to have had this opportunity."