As a special education teacher, Swati Phatak savours many proud moments.
But she will never forget the first time she saw a wheelchair-bound student walk independently.
“His father said to me, ‘other parents complain when their child runs away from them in shops – my son ran away from me yesterday and I had tears in my eyes’,” Mrs Phatak says.
“Seeing that child walk was a very humbling experience; I know I have to constantly reflect, rethink and modify everything I do for each student I work with because you can’t apply one rule of thumb to all students,” she says.
Mrs Phatak – a full-time teacher at Modbury Special School and a PhD candidate at Flinders University – has been named Primary School Teacher of the Year in the 2014 South Australian Excellence in Public Education Awards.
It’s quite a career feat for someone who admittedly didn’t choose teaching, but “fell into it”.
“I’m married to a retired army officer. In India we moved from one posting to another every couple of years so education was the only career I could keep consistently,” Mrs Phatak, 51, of Hillcrest, says.
“When I heard my name being called at the awards ceremony I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s the first time someone in special education has won so I feel very gratified that people are starting to recognise that special education goes far beyond keeping children safe in school until they’re 18.
“Special education is about teaching, learning and personalising the curriculum so each child can reach their full potential.”
Born in Mumbai, Mrs Phatak studied a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Education and taught at various schools throughout central India before moving to Australia in 2006.
Keen to bridge the gap between research and practice, she undertook a Master of Education at Adelaide University in 2010, a Master of Education (Special Education) at Flinders University in 2011 and is now in her second year of a Flinders PhD to improve learning outcomes for children with autism.
“Because of my own research I can bring about changes in my classroom and measure the outcomes.
“The best thing about being back in the classroom myself is that I’m not having to wait for a professional development course in a few years’ time to inform my practice – I can do it right now.”
For a career she didn’t exactly plan, Mrs Phatak says she “absolutely loves” her role as a teacher a and mentor for the world’s future leaders.
“Teachers ignite young minds, spark knowledge and facilitate individual potential.
“As a teacher, you open a child’s eyes to what the world can offer – in my eyes that’s one of the greatest lessons you can teach a child; that the world is their oyster.”
The 2014 SA Excellence in Public Education Awards were also won by Flinders graduates Ben Heathcote, who won Secondary School Teacher of the Year, and Sam Moyle, who won Early Career Teacher or the Year.
The awards attracted more than 1900 nominations, with each winner receiving $10,000 in funding for their professional development.