This week I have the good fortune to be at the International School of Belgrade in Beograd, Serbia with my friend, Sheila Merzer M.A. Licensed Psychologist. At the request of the school, we are observing and evaluating children. My daughter, Serene Bushey M.Ed., is the learning support teacher in this pretty school that serves children from about 40 countries in the Senjak neighborhood of Beograd. This is her second year in international teaching.
There are no laws to guide or compel special education here and having a learning support teacher is new in this school. Starting new has been both a challenge and a delight for Serene, who has enjoyed the challenge of creating a system unique to this place. The framework for special education needed to be built in a way that would make sense within this school and of course, considering the specific students who are here and need support. Here, just like in any other school, students who have autism are a particular challenge to effective educational programming. Bringing Sheila and I across 5500 miles to help her became part of Serene’s plan for creating a successful educational environment for these students.
At the start of the week, we provided an autism workshop to the Lower School—which did not have mandatory attendance but which nearly all of the staff attended. The teachers came with smart questions and have been asking questions ever since, which is gratifying for us.
Teachers here seem cheerful and caring and those we have observed seem very professional and accomplished in their work. Class sizes are small here—a lovely thing. So far as we can tell, the tools that they have used the most often in meeting the needs of different learners have been their own considerable understanding of children, along with grade retention or hiring tutors. These strategies sometimes worked, apparently, even for students with ASD, but not always as well as everyone wanted.
Information regarding the neurological aspects of ASD and information about educational programming for students with autism is new to many of the staff and they appeared curious and happy to learn more. It has been gratifying to see strategies that were suggested yesterday, implemented today—the response to new information has been just that fast. I don’t know if it is the particular school culture so filled as it is with second language learners and cultural differences that required accommodation, or good hiring practices or the small class sizes and well-educated classroom assistants, or some other variable, but teachers seem especially willing to try new strategies here. Not one teacher has said that it would be too much work to add visuals as needed, to demonstrate rather than simply tell children expectations, to provide sensory breaks, or to modify curriculum if needed. The degree of openness and willingness to give things a try makes our long trip seem worth every mile.
I want to personally thank the teachers at the International School of Belgrade for being willing learners themselves. It has been a pleasure to spend a week among kind, welcoming, responsible, respectful, flexible, excellent educators.