Special education teachers' perception of mentally handicapped pupils : a case study in the Greater Athens region of Greece
In this thesis I set out to study the process through which special education teachers characterise and educate a group of pupils who are categorised as mentally handicapped. Teachers' perceptions of their pupils are reflected in their educational practice and constitute an important element in the complex and lengthy procedure during which a child is defined as mentally handicapped. The research examines these issues in practice by way of a case study of teachers in the Greater Athens Region of Greece. During the school years the label of mental handicap may be confirmed and maintained in a child's identity as he/she moves into adulthood. Schooling may also work in a positive way and provide for a child's eventual integration in the mainstream education and the community. It is this positive aspect of schooling which has become an inseparable part of the underlying principles in special education today. The Greek Education Act of 1985 concerns individuals with special educational needs and refers to the category of mentally handicapped, among other groups, as those with a right to education. As stated in the Act the scope of education is to provide for the balanced and effective development of the individuals concerned as well as for their mutual acceptance and integration in the community as a whole. The above principles laid down by the policy makers are loosely framed in the context of the Act and are open to interpretation by those who are involved in the practice of special education. Reference in the Act to "the balanced and effective development of the individuals and possibilities for their integration" may be defined in a variety of ways by the professionals involved in the system of special education. Among the latter the role of the teachers is a central one. Teachers are Expected to educate pupils who are already categorised as mentally handicapped and help them develop their potential and integrate as best as possible in the community. Depending on their personal experience, gained in the community, their training and their involvement in the system of special education, teachers may take different approaches in defining what mental handicap is and how education of the mentally handicapped pupils should and/or could be carried out. On the one hand teachers develop a professional ideology, that is, their conception of how their task should be carried out. On the other hand, faced with practical aspects of implementing such ideologies, teachers reach decisions as how to handle different cases in given situations. Thus, I am using the concept of teachers' perceptions of mental handicap to refer to the practical aspects of teaching the mentally handicapped as well as the teachers' own ideologies. The empirical research began with an exploratory study. This involved a sample of 10 teachers in 5 special schools in the study area. The results of the exploratory phase were then used for the design of the main research which concerned the study of 13 special schools with a sample of 40 teachers. In both exploratory and main research I have followed a research methodology based on the ethnographic approach in educational studies. This involved a flexible design to start the research and the use of observation and informal interview techniques in data collection. The results have been analysed mainly qualitatively. They show the range of criteria teachers in the sample are applying to identify their mentally handicapped pupils, criteria such as physical features or social and psychological characteristics of the pupils. They are not, however, applied in a universal manner by all the teachers. Variation in the criteria is analysed and conclusions are drawn that may be of use to further study in this area. As far as education of the mentally handicapped is concerned the results of my research point out the existence of a complex network of interactions within which teachers have to carry out their task. It involves elements both within and outside the schools where they teach, i. e., the attitude of the community as a whole and the general atmosphere at work. Teachers' approaches towards their mentally handicapped pupils may be formed through a process of interaction in different setups. In this research I am attempting to discover the outcomes of such interactions by studying teachers' practice of special education in the actual setting of the schools. I have sought to demonstrate that the outcome of teachers' interaction in each specific situation adds to a cluster of perceptions within which mental handicap is defined and dealt with. In some cases teachers may help maintain this already existing cluster, in other cases they may modify its form.