Teaching special needs pupils is challenging, and also rewarding.

"I love working here, I don't think it is harder than any other job," says Pilar Romero, a teacher in special needs, at Oaklynn Special School satellite class, Avondale Intermediate.

"I don't think it's harder than any other work," she says. She admits, though, she is pretty tired at the end of the day.

Pilar migrated to New Zealand from Spain 13 years ago, where she worked in the same field.

The day I sit in on a class, a dance teacher, Rebecca, is leading a lesson. It's a fairly complex routine the students have been working on for several weeks.


The energy is magnetic - Pilar, the three teacher aides, Utkarsh Sanjanwala, Yuki Okumura, Sunny Thomas - and Oaklynn Principal Louise Doyle, all join in.

The dancing is not compulsory and two students opt out, to read. Louise says participation in the dance could become a behaviour issue, if it was made compulsory - but the students are quite happy and learning something from their books.

Louise mentions behaviour because of the recent issue of schools putting students in time-out rooms.

At Oaklynn there are no such rooms, and managing students largely comes down to understanding their communication and training staff to be proactive.

"We try to prevent the child from using [bad] behaviour to get what they need," Louise says.

Pilar says mainstream schools may have difficulty dealing with behaviour problems, because, they lack the expertise. Oaklynn takes on children who were constantly being excluded in their old school. They are better managed in the special school and start learning again. "We don't punish the children, we treat them with love and compassion," Pilar says.

The emphasis is on positive reinforcement, behaviour is managed. "We praise them for specific things," Pilar says. "Normally these guys don't get a lot of that."

"It is a tough job - all teaching is - but this is particularly intense," Louise says.

All the students shake my hand. With three teacher aides and a wide range of students, I notice there is a lot going on; heaps of individual tuition. One student is learning his times tables, and another is an expert in solving the Rubik's cube. It is busy, controlled chaos, and everyone is clearly happy, energised and learning.

"We are demanding, we want people to learn. It is a journey with different challenges. We are very privileged to be with these students," Pilar says as we chat in her office.

For Louise, special education has been a lifelong career.

Decades ago she had a holiday job at a residential home for adults with disabilities in the United Kingdom, where her father worked as a carer. The experience was an epiphany. She returned to New Zealand, where she was born, and 25 years ago she began working at Oaklynn. She says she is responsible to both the children and the parents. When she had a child herself, it made her think what it would be like to have a special needs child.

Oaklynn is part of the state system, one of 12 state-run special schools in Auckland-Northland and 28 in New Zealand. Its administration centre and "base school" is tucked away down a cul-de-sac in New Lynn and caters for those with the highest level of support needs.

As well as the classrooms, at New Lynn, Oaklynn has classes around Auckland's west and central-west including Green Bay Primary and High schools, Chaucer (Blockhouse Bay) and New Lynn.

There is also a bridging programme, which students join at 18, at OakTEC (Tertiary Education Centre) where students spend three years. Because of the Education Ministry's "mainstreaming" programme, the Government has not built special schools since the 1960s, Louise says.

"The special schools all work closely together," she says.

There are 140 students and 110 staff in total and a variety of specialised support staff including occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists and specialist teachers in music, dance and behaviour, art and vision.

"It is a strong coaching culture, where people are supported in their work," Louise says.

Louise says the emphasis at Oaklynn is on therapy and teaching combined. With a wide range of students, all facing various issues, and with different abilities, the curriculum has to fit the individual.

Special schools use many specialised strategies and pedagogies. I saw the South Pacific Educational Courses in action.

This included a reading programme based on a cartoon character called Spike, who for example, ejects from a rocket ship, to land in the bush.

The system uses discussion cards with words and pictures. In each book, students learn to read 20 words, (like "shed" or "cave"), matching pictures to words.

Louise says autism, or reported autism, is increasing in New Zealand and worldwide, possibly as people understand it more.

Over half of Oaklynn's classes are "autism specific", she says.

Autism New Zealand estimates there are 40,000 autistic people in New Zealand and about 1 per cent of the population worldwide.

Special needs is a complex area. Learning difficulties may arise from a range of causes, including trauma at birth, and "Fragile X" syndrome, the world's biggest cause of inherited mental impairment and the leading identifiable cause of autism and other genetic disorders.

Many children attending special schools may have learning difficulties and other complex issues such as physical disability, vision impairment, autism and hearing loss.

Louise believes there is currently insufficient research into special needs in New Zealand, although there have been papers in atypical children and special education for years.

"Our concern is where is the specialised knowledge, around teaching and learning, for teachers in all schools - both mainstream and special schools?" she says.

In 100 years time, our genetic make-up, and the need for specialist teaching and learning will probably not have changed that much.

But Louise hopes special schools will still be here, providing advice and support that parents and professionals don't get anywhere else.