Specialist educator keen to write a new chapter in lives of children who deserve more support

Special education teacher and 2023 UNE Rising Star Laila Mandoh is writing a book she hopes will help encourage deeper understanding.

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

In between parenting four children and working at two busy high schools, special education teacher and University of New England (UNE) 2023 Rising Star Laila Mandoh is crafting a children’s book.

The fictional work draws heavily from her real experiences of teaching some of the most disadvantaged of students, including those with severe intellectual and physical disabilities who are wheelchair-bound and non-verbal.

In the story, although none of her students can speak, their teacher successfully teaches them how to make up tales of their own, largely through “listening with her eyes”.

“Every person can communicate, and every student can learn new skills, regardless of their perceived disabilities or abilities,” Ms Mandoh says. “As teachers, I advocate for not only ‘looking’ at our students, but actually ‘seeing’ them to take the whole child into consideration, including their social and emotional well-being.”

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It’s a strategy that has seen the passionate teacher advance quickly as a respected specialist educator. Less than 12 months after graduating from UNE with a Master of Education (Special Education) in 2020, she transitioned from being a classroom English teacher to establishing a pioneering Special Education and Learning Support Faculty at Sydney independent school, Al Zahra College, and training a team of support staff.

Since then, she has supported the cognitive, emotional and social development of hundreds of students – along with their parents, her colleagues and the wider school community. Ms Mandoh has also exported research-based teaching programs to Blakehurst High School, which has an even larger cohort of students with disabilities.

Public school students benefit from access to additional support

Not all have been formally diagnosed, but that has not stopped Ms Mandoh from working to understand and address their individual needs through tailored literacy, numeracy and reading interventions.

“If you don’t have a diagnosis, it is very difficult to receive any additional support in a public school,” she says. “There are critical points in a student’s schooling when we need to address learning difficulties. A lot of people will go undiagnosed their entire life and never receive disability or learning support because of the associated stigma and lack of awareness. It’s an ongoing battle. I have been working really hard to get more kids the support they need at school and at home. I try to remove some of the fears and myths around disability, to normalise it and have people accept it as part of our journey through life.”

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Ms Mandoh was first inspired by students in years nine and 10 in a “challenging all-boys school” where she worked. Their behaviour – including disengagement, non-attendance, oppositional defiance and even classroom fighting – was, she says, a cry for help.

“I discovered that their literacy was at a year three-level, and I knew these students would suffer all their life unless I did something. The school structures were failing them and there was not enough happening at home, so I began working out how I could cater to their needs.”

Teachers also need resources and understanding

At Al Zahra, Ms Mandoh says the leadership of the new faculty provided an opportunity to educate fellow teachers and resource them adequately.

“It is critical to know your students and their families really well and to understand what might be lifelong conditions,” she says. “I try to highlight every student’s strengths, encourage them to know and value themselves, and to set goals to build their skills. I empower them to work for what they want in life, and to challenge their mindset, regardless of the label they have. It’s also important for parents to understand that that their child is capable of achieving, succeeding and thriving.”

Although she says progress can sometimes seem slow, Ms Mandoh says consistent support does have the power to help students experience a dramatic change to their attitude to learning.

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“I had a student with dyslexia recently tell me that after only being on a reading support program for three weeks he could read words he ‘would never have read in a million years’,” Ms Mandoh says. “His view of what he is capable of has changed and he is proud of himself. It’s life-changing for a lot of kids to receive quality support in school, to learn positive strategies that maintain their dignity.”

While her colleagues have praised her courage, curiosity and perseverance, her innovative strategies, collaborative and inclusive approach, and kindness, Ms Mandoh says developing a trusting rapport with students who may have ADHD, autism, dyslexia, mild or moderate intellectual delays or other cognitive challenges has been key.

“Whatever opportunity I have with students – a smile, eye contact or a small conversation – it all matters and these students are the ones who need it the most,” she says. “They look to their teachers for consistency and care every day.”

Dreaming of a future where all students have the opportunity to achieve their full potential

Her hope for the education sector is to see the learning support she has implemented made available in every school, so every student is able “to get the best from the education system” and be set up for post-school success.

“Teaching is one of those professions where you can make a huge difference to the lives of others,” she says. “It sounds cliched, but it’s true. You never forget the teachers who influenced you positively. Teaching is a life force, but only if you are willing to give a part of yourself to your students, and to make them feel as though they are seen and heard.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live