By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | October 11, 2023
As a youngster, stepping out into the corporate world, working with special children was not on the priority list of Olivia Moraes. However, after working for two years for a reputed pharmaceutical company, Olivia Moraes decided that she needed to do something that would give meaning to her life and also help society. “While the job was routine and monotonous, I soon realized a deep yearning to pursue something more meaningful. I realized that a change was necessary,” says Olivia, who recently retired as Principal of The Stephen High School For the Deaf and Aphasic, a Special School educating differently-abled children since 1957.
Olivia Moraes: Empowering the differently-abled!
Olivia Moraes spent 34 years in this school, 16 years as Principal. Here, she not only taught, but also nurtured and set up different curriculum to aid in quick learning for these students. “The desire to work with differently-abled children dawned on me gradually. The passion for this cause developed with time. In the beginning, it was a huge challenge but as I evolved in my teaching practice, I began to enjoy my work,” reveals Olivia who enjoyed every day interacting and teaching differently-abled children.
Opening Doorz met with Olivia Moraes to understand her desire to leave a comfortable job in the field of her choice, to make a completely different choice of profession. Olivia is known for initiating the academic program ‘Beyond Textbooks in The Digital Age’ which exposed students to relevant videos and documentaries beyond the syllabus. This program of hers helped the children foster critical thinking and yearn for knowledge.
“Students love to come to school because they feel wanted here. Even on a holiday they prefer to be at school. Why? It’s because they can communicate with their classmates, share things, participate in activities, and look forward to doing things they cannot do at home (Dance, drama, art, sports, etc). There is that promise of a new tomorrow and excitement that brings them to school. At home, perhaps, they feel ignored and left out among the hearing world,” reveals Olivia Moraes giving an insight into her world of teaching and the world of those children yearning to connect with those who understand their world.
Did you always have a desire to work with differently-abled children, or did this passion develop over time?
The desire to work with differently-abled children dawned on me gradually. The passion for this cause developed with time. In the beginning, it was a huge challenge but as I evolved in my teaching practice, I began to enjoy my work.
Could you share the story of how you began your journey in the field of special education? What inspired you to take on this path?
Following my graduation in Chemistry in the year 1985, I embarked on my professional path, as a Trainee Chemist at a renowned pharmaceutical company. For two years, my role primarily involved conducting chemical tests on pharmaceutical products, working with laboratory equipment, and providing quality control certification for factory-produced samples. While the job was routine and monotonous, I soon realized a deep yearning to pursue something more meaningful. I realized that a change was necessary.
Motivated by a desire to make a difference, I made the courageous decision to leave the pharmaceutical industry and pursue a career in special education. In 1987, I enrolled in a degree program for special education, marking the beginning of my transformative journey in this field. Exactly one year later, in 1988, I secured a coveted position at Stephen’s.
What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered while working as the Principal of The Stephen High School For the Deaf and Aphasic?
When I began my journey as a teacher, the scope of my work, both curricular and co-curricular activities was limited to a few sets of students of my class only. But when I got promoted to the post of principal, my sphere of work increased tremendously. The welfare and well-being of all the students of my school became my responsibility. I had to get accustomed to thinking on a larger scale.
Working concurrently with the education department and the Department of Social Justice and Special Assistance Maharashtra, on the execution of various policies on a day-to-day basis was exhaustive though very interesting and engaging at times. It was an enriching learning experience though. Also, it was always an exciting task to look for donors, and benefactors and work with like-minded NGOs for the betterment of services, and opportunities for the students and expand the infrastructure, especially in technology.
On the flip side, what were the most rewarding aspects of your role in educating differently-abled children?
The most rewarding aspect of my role in educating these children has been constantly reinventing myself, to devise new strategies, whether imparting English Grammar skills, teaching Science concepts, or Mathematical equations. As we know, special education is a very challenging job. It’s not the ‘one size fits all’ type of approach. Results are not easily achieved. But as and when I could begin to see the visible difference my efforts were making, these were the most rewarding moments and deeply satisfying to me.
Another rewarding aspect was introducing innovative educational strategies, organizing events, and competitions, creating a robust motivating atmosphere for students to participate in various forums, and grooming them to be young confident leaders.
How has your experience at the school shaped your understanding of education and the needs of differently-abled students?
Through the years I have come to understand and realize the following:
- Empathy, not sympathy, is the key to empowering differently-abled students.
- Active listening, rather than merely hearing, demonstrates genuine care and concern for their needs.
- Establishing trust with students is paramount, particularly when assuming a leadership role. They view you as their role model.
- Be mindful of your body language and facial expressions, as they speak volumes. Your non-verbal communication, patience, and compassion make a significant impact.
- A skilled and empathetic teacher can easily identify from observation which students have not grasped the material being taught.
- Even small doses of daily motivation can greatly boost students’ confidence and performance.
- When delivering discipline, address students individually, not in a group setting.
- Believe in and implement Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to achieve optimal results for students.
In what ways do you believe working with these students has enriched your life personally and professionally?
Besides becoming a calmer and more patient person, I have learnt that kindness, integrity, and trust are building blocks to a deeper understanding between students and teachers. I have seen students come from broken families, and lower income groups, sometimes surviving on maybe one meal a day, but they would still have a smile on their faces. This was an eye-opener to me. We are far more privileged and yet we complain.
All that these students need is care and concern. They need opportunities; we need to provide them with that. Students love to come to school because they feel wanted here. Even on a holiday they prefer to be at school. Why? It’s because they can communicate with their classmates, share things, participate in activities, and look forward to doing things they cannot do at home (Dance, drama, art, sports, etc). There is that promise of a new tomorrow and excitement that brings them to school. At home, perhaps, they feel ignored and left out among the hearing world. The school provides them with a platform to connect and an outlet to showcase their skills.
What do you think has been the school’s most significant impact on its students and the larger community?
- The school promotes the oral method of communication as propagated by its founder, Mrs. Nancy DeSa, and Mr. Joe DeSa. The philosophy and ethos of the school are to serve the educational needs of the children through oral teaching methodologies by adopting, promoting, and leveraging the latest advances in medical care and education to integrate the children at all possible opportunities. It admits students from diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.
- Its core values of good behavior, discipline, and holistic development of personality prepare them for a leadership role wherever they go. The school’s commitment to teaching subjects of regular schools has given the students a favorable advantage to seek college admissions in regular colleges, unlike other special schools for the deaf.
- Our students are pursuing undergraduate education in prestigious colleges like St. Xavier’s, Jaihind, Somaiya, St. Andrew’s, etc.
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