Sunday, 5 April 2015

The day Winnie the Pooh became my hero

I have just returned from a week at Disneyland Paris. A bizarre place of adults dressed in Goofy hats and employees always being happy. Oh, and there are endless queues. Queues that never end. A bit like Alton Towers, but with bigger and longer queues.

One of the things I am impressed with Disney is its attitude towards disability. One of my daughters has Cerebral Palsy. Something, I am quite open and honest about. She is diplegic, so her legs don’t function as do yours or mine. In fact, she can only walk for short periods of time and even then those short bursts of walking are fraught with danger and much destruction as she can’t walk in a straight line. Anyway, Disney helped her by having special access for each ride and allowing her to wait less than others. They even had a dedicated space for her and other disabled children to watch the parades. I cannot fault their attitude. They understood her needs and they helped.

So where is Winnie the Pooh in all of this? Well, one day there was a special parade for Mickey and friends. They drove around in a circle, waving to everyone. My wife, daughters, wheelchair and I waited to see this happen. As usual, the general scrum descended. We made our way to the two metres of a hundred metres strip dedicated to disabled children and waited our turn. A row of characters pranced around before us and talked with the able children and they signed their autograph books and took pictures. We waited and then towards the end some of the characters made it to the allotted space where we were stood.

Princess Jasmine arrived and signed my daughters’s autograph books. Then, Winnie the Pooh appeared on the scene. He was dancing along to the music blaring out of the speakers. He was two metres away signing autographs for children. They were loving it. He was too. We were right at the end of the section allocated for disabled children. A rope separated the two groups of people. One child, pushed on by his mother, was trying to get Winnie’s (I’ll shorten his name for ease) attention. He was pushing and shoving and elbowing his way. Behind him was his mother egging him on. The mother was helping him get under the rope and his was edging his way across to the disabled side near my daughter in her wheelchair. Thrust at the front of him was his autograph book and behind him his mother. We, as family, ignored what was happening. Winnie didn’t. He interacted with everyone apart from the pushing boy.

The boy started to push his autograph into my daughter’s face, covering her from sight. The boy’s mother watching and not doing anything about it; her inaction a sign of her acceptance of this behaviour. My daughter, being her usual self, didn’t mention a thing. More shoving and pushing ensued.  Had my daughter not been in a robust wheelchair, she would clearly have been pushed aside or on to the floor by this action. Everything that my daughter did, the boy pushed himself before her.

Winnie the Pooh then stopped. He made a clear point. He told the boy to go back to the space allocated to abled bodied children – all ninety-eight metres of it. Then, gently Winnie held the boy’s hand, which had been shoved into my daughter’s general area, and pushed him away and said no. Winnie then kneeled down to her level and cuddled her.

This all happened in a short space of time. So, quickly, my wife and I had little time to react or say something, but the whole experience had a bit of a profound experience on me. I am not angry with the boy, or even the mother, but proud and impressed with what one man in a furry suit did. There in that suit was a fantastic human being. I don’t know how much he or she is paid, but I’d like to thank them personally. Someone that dealt with a small injustice in such a brilliant way.

So what is the relevance of this to my teaching? Don’t worry: I haven’t decided to share my holiday memories and photographs. No, I felt this episode reflects what happens daily in the classroom. We all have needs. We all need support. We can all be a little bit selfish. We can all put our needs above others. I am not angry with the parent in this episode; she was focused on her needs so much she didn’t consider the needs of others. I don’t think the mother purposefully lets down the wheels on wheelchairs so that her child can be better than others. I genuinely think she and the boy did not consider how people around them have needs that are different to their own needs.

We, teachers, have to deal with thirty individuals with thirty different sets of needs. Everybody wants the best. Everybody will push and shove to get the best. Everybody needs support. However, it is the balancing act of these needs that is something that we need to be aware of. With too much support a student becomes too dependent that they cannot work on their own. With too little support a student lacks confidence and therefore will struggle to work. Our job is to be the Winnie the Pooh in the classroom. Allocating those that need support and those that don’t. We are the guides in the learning.

My daughter will pretend she can’t do things to get extra support from people, when she is more than capable of doing something. She knows how to play on her needs. That’s why dealing with SEN in the classroom is such a difficult thing. These are children and they don’t always know how to deal with things. Therefore, they opt for default approaches either ‘play weak and feeble’ or ‘push and shove’. That’s why I think it also important that we push SEN students. It is too easy to wrap SEN children in ‘cotton wool’, because they have something diagnosed or written in a folder somewhere. It is the sympathy factor. I see it all too often with my daughter. She is underestimated because she has the label of Cerebral Palsy. In fact, I would go to say, in a way, she needs pushing twice as hard as an able bodied student as life is twice as hard for her. All the sympathy in the world will not do her the world of good if she doesn’t do things for herself.  That’s why I think we need to work harder to make them more independent, because there will be a time when they will have grown out of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and there will not be a Winnie to help them.

Winnie reminded me it isn’t sympathy that children with disabilities need; it is an understanding of how they function and interact with the world around them. It is an understanding when they need help and when they can do it themselves.

Thanks for reading,



P.S. If you ever see Winnie the Pooh, thank him for me.


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