There's something special about Gong Yili
When wandering around Chengjia School, I found that it wasn’t filled with noises from the classrooms. Students were following what the teachers were saying and seemed to be quite enjoying the lesson.
I met several students in the corridor with two teachers and an assistant holding their hands to lead them to another classroom. They were not shy at all, saying hello and waving to me as if we knew each other, but actually this was the first time I had been to the place.
It broke my stereotype because the students in this school are suffering from moderate or profound intellectual disability, some with Down’s syndrome or autism that may cause them to be tense in front of strangers or making chaos. They also greeted their teacher Gong Yili who was showing me round. They were like friends rather than in a teacher-student relationship.
With their polite manner, I knew they must have been well-educated at this school, being cared by teachers and staff, including Gong.
A graduate from East China Normal University in special education, Gong said she didn’t think about it too much when choosing her major but just wanted to do something to help these children.
Chengjia School provides free education for students ranging from preschool to the ninth grade. Currently, it has more than 160 students and over 50 teachers — two teachers in each classroom and one more assistant in the classroom for lower grades. Classes are limited to no more than 10 students.
The school also deals with daily management work of vocational education since 2017.
Gong, who has been at the school for 16 years, is the vice principal and “life math” teacher of the second grade.
“What I teach is called life math instead of math like normal students study. Our target is to help them be involved in society after graduating, so what we teach is based on this requirement, and that’s why the subject is called life math,” said Gong. “Some students can point out the numbers with lingual cues, for example, while some may need more help. We are like doctors, giving those with different syndromes different treatments and support.”
In addition to life-related courses such as life Chinese and life math, singing, arts and crafts, rehabilitation training and speaking practice that can help them live an easier life in the future are also included. Teaching in accordance to everyone’s ability is of great importance, so teachers will provide individualized education according to their performance, according to Gong.
Every newcomer has an evaluation test first to see whether they are suitable to study in the school. Doctors will come to a conclusion first, and education experts will help with an interview. They will give professional advice on a solution — whether the child studies in a normal school or goes to a special education school like Chengjia.
“It is a prudent decision for each family to decide which is the best way for their children to grow up,” said Gong.
For Gong to get along with students, communication is the biggest challenge, especially for autistic students.
“If the student is in a lower grade who comes to the school without their parents for the first time, we have some training courses to help them become more independent and adapt to the social environment,” she said.
“Sometimes they will vent their emotions all of a sudden with no reason in class. Then I will try to confort them to make them calm down. If it doesn’t work, I will tell the teacher assistant to take them outside the classroom to guide them. When they calm down, the teacher assistant will send them back to the class.”
Gong tries to discover the inner world of her students through different ways, finding out what they are interested in or communicating with their parents to get to know more about them.
But things do not always run smoothly. For example, there was a first grader who had no reaction to anything, so it required Gong to be patient and try to open his heart little by little. It took her a long time, but it did work. His performance has become better and better.
Gong never complains about how hard her work is. Instead, she keeps making efforts to encourage the students’ growth.
The purpose of sending these children to the school varies from parent to parent. Some object to the special education school, regarding it as a waste of time.
Because of this, communication with parents plays an important role.
“We advise parents to set an appropriate target for their children, not too high or too low, and cooperate with us to make a personal plan for each one,” said Gong.
To those autistic students who are reluctant to come into contact with the world, Gong spares no effort in improving their life skills.
“Every autistic child is an isolated island away from the continent which is normal people like us. As a teacher, my mission is to build bridges between islands and islands and the continent,” said Gong. “Our goal is to help them not make trouble to their families or society and even, to make a living by themselves after graduation.”
On Teacher’s Day on September 10, students had a surprise for Gong, singing songs in class to express their gratitude to her. The performance gave Gong the impetus to keep on devoting herself to special education.
“Some people say teachers of special education only need to be patient or care for students with love, but the truth is that’s far from enough. The priority should be professional. Not anybody can do the work,” said Gong.
Luckily, more and more people are throwing themselves into special education. The school accepted two graduates with master’s degree in special education this year, and Gong believes that with their joining, her team can provide a better education for students.