In the United States, parents of children who have autism expect they will be educated by teachers who have special training to help them make the most of their strengths and talents. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many countries around the globe. So three Anoka-Hennepin School District 11 staff decided they could make a difference for some.
When Special Education Supervisor Jennifer Babiracki learned that teachers in Brazil have little or no training in working with autism, she enlisted the help of autism resource specialists Diane Gallagher and Angela Haffner.
With funding from a federal grant, Babiracki masterminded two training sessions last year and two more this spring for teachers in Brazil.
The three accomplished that from a small conference room at the Staff Development Center using WebEx conferencing technology and a connection to translator Renan Leahy in Boston, Mass.
Leahy translated the conversations between the teachers in Anoka and the Portuguese-speaking teachers gathered closely together at 11 sites strung across the states of Minas Gerais and Goias in Brazil. This year nearly 350 teachers participated.
During two two-hour sessions, Haffner and Gallagher discussed the unique nature of children with autism and described their characteristics and typical behaviors, their strengths and challenges.
They also shared strategies for addressing their educational needs and behavioral difficulties when children with autism are included in regular classes.
In addition to the presentations, the teachers followed up with coaching sessions for their colleagues in Brazil. They viewed videotapes of Brazilian teachers implementing the training with students and then Haffner and Gallagher gave them feedback on how they can improve.
“They are very receptive to learning from us,” said Babiracki.
“They are like sponges, eager to learn and use everything we have for them. This feels so kind. It really shows that it takes a village to raise a child. Our village is very large.”
According to Babiracki, the Brazilian teachers have a great need for training in special education.
“Their level of knowledge and skill is where we were 30 years ago,” Babiracki said.
In 2008, the Brazilian government mandated that schools serve students with special needs; Congress mandated it in the United States in 1975.
“It has been an incredible experience,” said Gallagher. “They have such feelings of gratitude.”
Neither she nor Haffner minded giving up their Saturday mornings to provide the training.
“Every time we do it I feel like I am on cloud nine,” said Haffner. “I feel like we are contributing so much and they just grasp it so much more.”
This outreach to Brazilian teachers is one of the results of Babiracki’s participation in the 2011-12 Brazil Administrator Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She was one of nine educators from the U.S who hosted educators from Brazil.
Three administrators visited schools in Anoka-Hennepin in the fall of 2011 and then Babiracki visited them in Minas Gerais, Brazil, the following July for two weeks.
She extended her trip a week and was joined by Gallagher. Together they provided some teacher training while they were there.
“We did a huge presentation to 350 people,” Babiracki said.
“We gave everyone certificates at the end and they were so proud and excited that even family members came.”
She and the State Department of Minas Gerais signed the certificates to make them very official.
Babiracki said they remain in contact with their colleagues to provide support.
“The purpose of the exchange program was to develop a relationship that would be sustained. We have really taken that to heart,” she said.
Their work has also helped raise awareness of autism in Brazil. They were thrilled to get photos of students carrying a banner and distributing fliers for Autism Awareness Month.
They plan to return in 2014 to continue their work. Haffner hopes to join them.
“People are so appreciative of the work we are doing. It’s a way of building bridges and creating harmonious feelings,” said Babiracki.
The grant was funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and the National Council of State Secretaries of Education, U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Office. It is implemented by American Councils for International Education.