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The Southern Cross : November 2011
November 2011 Page 19 www.thesoutherncross.org.au The Southern Cross feature | He's a school principal with an unusual career pathway. And while he's adamant that this story should really be about the extraordinary students, parents and staff of St Patrick's Special School, his own story is just as special. Rebecca DiGirolamo reports. Craig Battams started his career as a painter and musician. But his dreams of becoming the next Picasso took a back seat later in life when he had a young family to feed. At 29 years of age he began teaching Art at St Paul's College (5-12) in Gilles Plains. Two years later the impact of the all-boy school's Edmund Rice tradition, combined with his own search for meaning, saw him become Catholic. He spent 12 years teaching at St Paul's. "The Christian Brothers are a very impressive group of religious men," he says. "I like their theology and their focus on justice. They take on kids at the edge of society and walk with them." In 2006, Craig spent some time working with the Brothers in Tanzania before returning to Adelaide to teach at St Ann's Special School, in Marion. Today, 56-year-old Craig is shepherding 50 students with intellectual disabilities and their families at St Patrick's Special School, in Dulwich -- the sister school to St Ann's. Having previously run a Catholic mainstream school, Craig at first found the experience at St Patrick's overwhelming and confronting. However, "after a few months you get past the disability and see the kids for who they are, not what they can or can't do". "As a society, we too often see people, such as our students, through the lens of their disability and not for who they are as people," he says. "Someone's so-called disability, however, is in no way the whole picture of who he or she is. Our students are fully human and fully alive. Like each one of us, however, they are vulnerable." St Patrick's School was established in 1944 and teaches students aged five to 20. The school has an extensive waiting list. Each student has an individually tailored learning plan focussing on communication and social skills, independent living skills, physical and sensory- motor skills and vocational training. Art, music and a range of physical education programs are also very important. Multiple communication strategies are utilised including speech, signing, picture exchange and gesture. A number of students also use high tech communication devices. "The teaching of life skills through fun and play and through applied practical experience in areas such as cooking, road safety, bus training, shopping, personal care, and interacting with people in the community is essential," says Craig. "While most of our students will not read or be numerate in the traditional sense of the word, it is important that we provide opportunities for them to engage with and enjoy spoken, written and visual language, to exchange money for items they like or need." Craig believes that strong relationships between students and staff (there is a ratio of one staff for every two students) underscore teaching at St Patrick's. "It takes a while to get to know students, to see the world through their eyes, and help them use their 'voice' to participate in the world in ways that are meaningful for them," he says. "Our relationships with families are very important in this." Craig was appointed principal at St Patrick's in 2008 and can't see himself returning to mainstream schooling. "I really enjoy being with our students. I love the fact that they never pretend to be someone they are not. This challenges us to be very open and honest. Our students demand authenticity from us. They teach us about what it means to be human and for that I am very grateful." He says St Patrick's is blessed with an exceptional, talented staff who genuinely understand learning. The school is also supported by Catholic Education SA which believes strongly that every child has the fundamental right to a quality education and, very importantly, is prepared to "put their money where their mouth is". He says the fight for equality for people with disabilities is very important in today's "society of the strong" where people are too easily defined by what they can (or can't) do rather than for who they are. "Anyone deemed weak is left behind. Our kids are too often defined in this way and so are at risk of being marginalised. But our students are in no way weak. They belong as they are in our society and should not be defined by their perceived deficits. We have a great deal of work to do!" Craig learns from his students 'Our students demand authenticity from us. They teach us about what it means to be human and for that I am very grateful.' Photo: John Nieddu