No educational qualification ever prepares you for the real thing! And Sofia Priyanjali Cotta (better known as Priyanjali) from Miramar experienced this very thing when she volunteered at SPJ Sadhana School some five odd years ago.
“I was named Sofia but my father chose Priyanjali as my everyday name,” said Sofia.
Today, Priyanjali, 24, is a Special Educator (SE) at Sadhana, an NGO for children with mental retardation. She left Goa after she completed standard X. “It was not my plan to leave Goa, but after class X, I was asked whether I would be interested in going to Sophia College in Mumbai,” she says, adding, “This seemed like a new experience and new challenge, so I packed my bags and came to Bombay to complete my studies.”
As an SE, Priyanjali’s role is to teach children with brain injury, mental retardation, autism, Down syndrome and other associated disabilities. “I head grades I and II which comprises kids between the age group of 4 and 11. We follow a developmental programme, which means that we focus on the overall growth of the child.” Ideally, an SE should start her day at school by 9:30 am and end work by 3:30 pm, but for Priyanjali, the day does not begin or end with a school bell.
As a child, Priyanjali dreamt a lot about her future, but was certain of one thing – her wish to teach. Little did she know who her pupils would be. It all changed when she offered a helping hand at Sadhana when she was pursuing her BA degree at Sophia College. “Working with kids individually, understanding them and the way they connected gave me more reasons to pursue this as a career,” she says.
Apart from this, Priyanjali has had a very unique inspiration. “My inspiration was two students – Anoushka and Sanjana. Anoushka was this chubby kid who ate an entire banana in a single gulp and she had these sad eyes that I saw light up every time I interacted with her. Sanjana is just a plain doll with the most captivating soul. When I started off, neither of them spoke at all, but I was able to understand them and when I didn’t, I still tried and they tried back and we had some really great time. I developed a very emotional bond with these girls.”
According to Priyanjali, every day at school is a challenge as you don’t know what to expect from a special child. The biggest challenge is getting parents involved in the overall development of these children. “It’s not easy to be an educator for a child with special needs, but it’s not easy to be a parent of one either,” she explained.
Commenting on the difference between being a teacher and an SE, Priyanjali distinguishes, “When you’re a teacher, you have more academically focused goals and being a special educator makes your look into variety of areas. Also, the overall group of students we work with is largely impaired in some way or the other.”
Very soon, Priyanjali will be returning back to Goa after staying away from home for nearly nine years. After completing a B.Ed in Special Education from SNDT University in Mumbai, she now feels it’s time to earn a master’s degree in either the same subject or any other allied course.
When asked where she sees herself five years down the line, Priyanjali says, “I don’t exactly make myself five-year plans because plans change when you least expect them to. I would someday like to start something of my own, do something for people from Goa. Give back to my community after all that it has given me.”