Still Curious S1E11 - Travis Yuan

Travis Yuan00:00

I told her what's happening at school. She got emotional and teary because she did not think we were talking about the same child. I was really proud of that because I did not expect this person will be able to actually talk at all.

Danu Poyner00:19

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Travis Yuan who is a special education teacher based in Auckland, New Zealand. Travis migrated from Taiwan and trained as an early childhood educator before later moving into special education. In this episode, we discuss the day-to-day realities of leading a classroom full of kids with special needs and why it's so important to adapt and improvise.

Travis Yuan00:43

It changes daily. When one or two or all the students set off by something we have to throw out the plan for that day. My mind is constantly planning and thinking what's going to happen in the next 10, 20 minutes.

Danu Poyner00:59

Travis shares his views on free play approaches and the similarities and differences between early childhood education and special education.

Travis Yuan01:07

The students show you their interest and then you plan along the journey to guide them to go further and to go up a level. If you just dump a basket of blocks on the table for them to do whatever they want, that's not intentional planned experience.

Danu Poyner01:25

We also discuss Travis's experience of migrating from Taiwan and why it matters to him to follow his own path.

Travis Yuan01:31

I figured out that's the only way I can actually get out of the system as soon as possible, to do well at school so no one will actually bother me, and let me do what I want to do.

Danu Poyner01:41

It's a fun, fascinating and surprising conversation. I learned a lot. I hope you will too. Enjoy! It's Travis Yuan coming up right after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.


Part 1 - Meet Travis

Travis. Welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Travis Yuan02:22

I'm good.

Danu Poyner02:23

So you're a classroom teacher at a special school that describes itself as having a holistic approach where students can expect to be supported in their personal social, emotional, and educational growth by participating in personalized learning programs.

What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

Travis Yuan02:46

Everything is pretty much similar to a mainstream school but we slow down everything that we don't need to actually get in to achieve certain milestones as the mainstream school students do.

For special needs students, you need to actually know what they can do, what's their ability, what they're interested in doing and also what's the best approach for each of the students instead of using the same approach for the whole classroom? and We call it play based learning.

For example making Play-Doh, which is probably one of the most popular activities at school. You set up this activity, they engage in making it, so during the time you're making Play-Doh, they learn math cause they have to measure the ingredients. They develop their literacy skills because they're not only counting, they also learn how to read recipes the names of the tools. Also while they are engaging in the activities, they're focused, they're calm, which is good for their emotional growth. So that's a thing that we try to do at school. We don't just teach them. We don't just sit down and say, we are learning alphabet today, but we use songs or game for them to actually learn those knowledge without knowing that they are actually learning.

They just naturally remember what's happening. And of course, we try to make the activities fun and inviting, so they just naturally want to come and know what's happening. So they learn.

Danu Poyner04:32

Makes sense. Thanks for sharing that I'm keen to understand a few more examples of holistic learning and the personalized learning programs. What goes into those, but I guess before we get into details we should probably address this category that we call special education. How would you explain what special education is to say a 10 year old who doesn't have direct experience of it?

Travis Yuan04:57

So the difference between my students and mainstream students is more like they have emotional behavioral issues or they have shorter concentration spans or they can't control their emotions when things don't go their way. So, I just need to find out how long they can actually focus on engaging one thing. Then they just need a break. They need a break in between activities before they have a tantrum. That will be a success.

So you just need to figure out how everyone works. Some students can actually focus on doing something longer than others.

You just need to know how each of their systems work and then you have those breaks in between that actually help them engaging in those periods while they learning.

Danu Poyner05:52

That makes sense. is That a common kind of scenario in your classroom situation where people can't handle their emotions?

Travis Yuan06:00

I have seven students in my classroom and they're all pretty much on a spectrum of autism. Some of them are more capable than others. They can control their emotions?

they can learn more. And others, it's pretty much like they, they can't deal with frustration.

. They're like really thinking directly only about themselves or what they want to do. If things get changed or doesn't go the way they expect it to, they can't handle it. So they have a meltdown, they cry, they scream. They will try to do what they want to do.


Danu Poyner06:42

How do you engage with that kind of situation when that happens?

Travis Yuan06:46

can kind of trying to find a balance between what they want to do and , what we want them to do. let me think.

I have a student who is sensitive to noises and I have another student who screams whenever he's angry or upset. And whenever the screamer screams, that will set the


Danu Poyner07:13

A chain reaction kind of situation?

Travis Yuan07:14

Yes. So it's not only two of them. So I have one that's sensitive to noise, one who screams, one who just shouts whenever he's happy or for no reason, and one who'll cry whenever he doesn't want to do what he's asked to do. So pretty much these four people, they kind of set off each other constantly every day. So what we need to do is to try to minimize or reduce the time they actually scream or shout or cry to try to keep the whole classroom calm.

Danu Poyner07:50

That sounds intense Can you tell when this is going to happen? Can you detect, oh, this is going to set people off?

Travis Yuan07:58

Yeah. Cause, actually a lot of things can set him off. First of all, the noises we can't control. So like the sound of cicadas,

Danu Poyner08:07

very specific.

Travis Yuan08:08

yes. And lawn mowers outside the window, or any machine that's being , operated outside the window, but that we can't actually stop immediately.

That will set someone off. Or even during our group time, okay, so I can talk about someone else who hates a gingerbread man story. Whenever I played a story, he just screamed and cry and try to run out of the classroom. So those noises will set one person off and for me to stop the story for who liked gingerbread man story will set them off because they want to continue listening to the story.

Danu Poyner08:47


Travis Yuan08:48

So, Yeah. so that constantly happens. I just need to know the timing when I can actually stop the story or when I can start a story or song so my mind is actually planning thinking ahead all the time.

Danu Poyner09:02

Yeah. It sounds like quite a complicated balancing act. And you'd have to be quite good at improvising. Is that, a fair assessment?

Travis Yuan09:11

Yeah. I just need to know them very well. So we have a morning circle time when everyone's sitting at the table saying greeting everyone choosing a song that they like so I know who I can who can have a turn first, and once they have their turn, they can leave the table. So they wouldn't get affected by what's happening next.

Yeah, so for me what's most important thing is to build relationship with them, even for mainstream students, the relationship is important because doesn't matter how good you as a teacher, if no one wants to be around you or curious about what you're doing, they're not gonna learn anything.

So especially these students, they have more or less emotional behavioral issues. They want to feel comfortable and be in a familiar environment. So if you don't have a good relationship when they wouldn't even get close to you,

Danu Poyner10:12

Okay. How do you go about getting to know the students? I understand that would be very important. How do you approach that?

Travis Yuan10:18

The first thing is observation. You help the student to find their personality,

the interest and their behaviors or the habits, that they have in their life, like eating learning how they play, how they react to instructions. When I was working as a preschool teacher and we usually spent a month, usually four to six weeks to observe just one student and find out what they are really interested in doing and learning before we plan anything for them.

Danu Poyner10:56

Yeah. Okay.

Travis Yuan10:58

. Yeah. In the beginning. It can get really full on, but once you get used to it, as the time goes, you also, you get to know them. They get to know you more. So you kinda know where they are going in their learning journey.

Danu Poyner11:13

Hence the very personalized programs. You mentioned there were seven people in your class are the people in the class all the same age or they are they at different ages?

Travis Yuan11:26

Okay, That's a really good question because the students place in certain class, according to the condition or their ability. We have a classroom where the students are more academic, they're more communicative and they're ready to go to a satellite class in the mainstream school.

And we have more sensory class where they learn through the senses. So you don't plan too much academic activities for them because that just doesn't make sense. They're enjoying more and exploring with materials. Yeah, so that's pretty much how the setup is.

For my class, I pretty much have a entry class cause they all just turn five or they, they just transitioned from a preschool to a school setting. Yeah.

Danu Poyner12:22

Okay, thank you. So I'm intrigued by the holistic approach and the personalized learning programs. How do you go about creating a personalized learning program? What kinds of things are important to consider when you're doing that?

Travis Yuan12:38

First of all the ability we call it age appropriate activities, again, you build a relationship, you observe them. So, their level of learning and development. Also we try to get them to learn based on the interest. So that would be easier for them to actually want to explore new stuff.

I have a student in my class , who is physically capable. And he he's pretty much academic. He just can't talk that much. But he shows that interesting, like just a few weeks ago, he was singing the songs of different film production companies.

Now those songs before the movies. And then he started writing the names of like Dreamworks Columbia, that kind of thing.

Danu Poyner13:34

Oh, wow

Travis Yuan13:35

Yeah. We was shocked because we had no idea that he, he knows how to write. Yeah. So I just built on that. I start printing out those like movie posters or the names of the production company.

And he started doing tracing and he was watching a video on YouTube about those movie things. And then I teach him how the alphabet, I didn't know. I don't think he knows all the alphabets, but I was just teaching how the alphabet works while he was writing. So it's, I'm not asking him to memorize or all the letters, but he was slowly, gradually remembering what the words say and how to spell them.

Danu Poyner14:22

So you being quite spontaneous in adapting to something that's coming out in the, in front of you, it sounds like and changing your plans based

on, yeah. I'm really curious to understand how that works. Cause you've got this kind of curriculum sitting behind things that you need to hit.

And I really liked the phrase you used before about balancing what they want to do with what you want them to do. It, it sounds like a really nuanced kind of thing how do you approach that can you sort of share any examples of it?

Travis Yuan14:55

I'm trying to find out how it works too. Cause in early childhood education, you change the topic once that the child's interests changed. So you don't have a set time focusing on one subject or learning areas is changing all the time according to the the, the kid, but now I'm in the school setting as a primary school setting.

We do have plans for the whole Say a school term? I don't actually follow the term, the term plan sometimes I try, I try to, but sometimes it's hard. What I do now is I plan in something for the students to learn for the term and they don't need to achieve it if they don't achieve this, the goal that we set for them, it could go on for the next term and just keep going on till they get to a certain level.

We don't need to push it, or we don't have that pressure from mainstream school that we need to learn. certain content in a certain amount of time.

Danu Poyner16:11

Yeah, I was going to ask you how often you stick to the plan and how often you throw it out and which has better.

Travis Yuan16:20

I don't throw it out. It's actually it's it It changes daily. We have daily plan, weekly plan, term plan, that kind of thing.

I try to stick to the plan but usually when one or two or all the students set off by something on the day we have to throw out the plan for that day.

And we just carry on the following day. So there's no end we just keep going along.

Danu Poyner16:51


Travis Yuan16:51


Danu Poyner16:52

Constantly adapting.

Travis Yuan16:54

So we run the program as a group and then once they done where they asked to do say one teacher aides can take a particular student out in the playground as a break or reward and leaving the rest of them in a classroom and they can scream, they can shout, they can do whatever. Yeah. So we're kind we just need to take turns and know when to remove someone from the situation or environment. And then once another person achieved what they need to do for the day, they can go out for a walk and the other person can come back. So it's constantly changing the plan just to kind of coordinate with everyone's

Danu Poyner17:39

Hm. Hm. Is that a skill that you bring into your life outside the school, being able to adapt and change your plans?

Travis Yuan17:49

I am a really organized person. yeah, But I I've at work. I kind of take that skill to extreme because my mind is constantly planning and thinking what's going to happen in the next 10, 20 minutes. And I'll let my teacher aides know. So we know how to manage, to keep everyone, everything calm and manageable.

It's kinda hard to explain if you don't see it. It starts from the beginning of the day when they come in, you already know someone come in in a good mood or. So you plan, you start your planning from that point.

Part 2
Danu Poyner18:34

Yeah. So thanks zooming out then. I'm interested to understand how you came into this line of work. Is there something that particularly resonates for you about special education?

Travis Yuan18:47

No, not really. Like I said, I used to be a preschool teacher. I had so much fun working with children under five until one day I left the job do something else

I'll try to put this in the, in, in a nice way.

Danu Poyner19:06

Well, put it in an honest way.

Travis Yuan19:08

Okay. So I had. I did not enjoy working with some adults

I found it more challenging to deal with adults then teaching young kids. That's why I thought, okay. I did this for more than 10 years now. It's time for change.

Because of COVID I had to come back to teaching. But I didn't want to do the same thing. Again, so I started exploring other fields of education.

Danu Poyner19:37

I think we better back up here and you tell me the story

we'll come to the early childhood education, but was something in education, always plan A for you.

Travis Yuan19:47

Oh yeah. I can't tell you why, but that's, that's the only thing I wanted to do when I was a child. When I was a kid

Danu Poyner19:55

When's your

Travis Yuan19:56



Danu Poyner19:57

of, thinking I want to do something.

Travis Yuan20:00

when I was in kindergarten, I told my mom that I am going to be a teacher and this, I play a marking paper. Dan teaching, teach on a pretend, teaching the staff toys and stuff, things like that.

Danu Poyner20:17

Wow. So it really was there was no doubt that it was going to be education.

Travis Yuan20:21

Yeah. And I don't know why.

Danu Poyner20:25

Do you know why now? We often say, you have to live your life forwards, but you only understand things backwards. Is it something you have a reflection on now?

Travis Yuan20:34

I thought, I just enjoy helping others. I like to see how students grow or learn something new

I thought education is a very important things in like everywhere. It's not business, it's not something that you make money out of. It's more like developing people for a country for for the society, for the environment. Yeah, enjoying that. I enjoy seeing people grow. Maybe that's why.

Danu Poyner21:11

Yeah. So you trained as an early childhood educator, is that right? Can you share anything about that experience?

Travis Yuan21:20

I always enjoy more kind of open ended learning situations growing up. And I, I can't say I experienced that when I was a student back in Taiwan where I'm from and I came to New Zealand and I realized I can do everything the opposite way of my experience?

growing up

Danu Poyner21:54

Oh, really.

Travis Yuan21:55

and it worked.

Danu Poyner21:57

Okay. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? What was it like in Taiwan?

Travis Yuan22:02

oh, that's pretty much you listen to the teachers. You listen to your parents, you do what they want you to do. And I didn't think I, I need, I, I need to put this in a very nice way.

Danu Poyner22:15

You can do it. You can do two takes. You can do a nice way, and then you can do an honest way.

Travis Yuan22:19

Okay. The nice way.

is that I just thought I am a very, I see myself as a pretty creative person open to learning, trying different things, but I don't think I experienced that growing up until I came to New Zealand and I decided to, to study early childhood education and I realized I don't need to limit myself or the students to do what I dunno the society, wants them to do, wants them to be, or achieve, certain things at certain age and certain environment.

It's more about exploring. When I first work in the early childhood center my, my parents will be upset to listening to this, but I remember that I was not allowed to messy at school and I let the students to be messy during art activity. And I remember I was told to draw or create certain things that a teacher wanted me to do when I was a kid.

So I, so I let my students do where they where they want to create and everyone was happy and learning and, and everything was fine. It's not the end of the world. And I just liked the feeling of that. And I was told I did the right thing and actually a lot of the people asked me, how do you know how to do it?

Cause you didn't grow up here. I said, I just do the opposite of what my parents want me to do.

Danu Poyner24:04

well, that's a good rule to live by. Isn't.

Travis Yuan24:07

I know. Yeah. But yeah, I, yeah, my mom's not happy about this.

Danu Poyner24:13

So, is that a, is that a very conscious thing? Just starting to do, the opposite.

Travis Yuan24:18

yeah. At the beginning? Yes. Now I'm used to it, so, so I don't need to have that mindset anymore. It's more, it's very natural when I talk to a student or young kids, even my nephew or niece. I, yeah, I don't actually have assumptions or too much expectations of what they need to do or listen to me all the time.

Danu Poyner24:41

Given your experience in Taiwan that you've described, have you had yourself a learning experience where you've been able to take that exploring curiosity based kind of messy approach?

Travis Yuan24:56

at school? Probably not, but when I was trying to learn I have other interests, like singing. I was singing in the choir.

I enjoyed painting, creating, drawing that kind of thing where I don't need to listen to anyone then. Yes.

Danu Poyner25:17

Not not having to listen to, people's kind of it's, it's a bit of a theme I'm detecting.

Travis Yuan25:22

yes, because I know what I'm doing. So, I mean, I know where I'm going. I know which path I'm going actually to go. No, no one knows because they're not me.

Danu Poyner25:33

Yeah. Our best, how to be you.

Travis Yuan25:35

Yes. So, yeah, but at school I can't, I had to listen to the teachers and pass the test and stuff and did that exams and what I was supposed to learn.

Danu Poyner25:48

yeah. And did you

Travis Yuan25:49

Oh, that was the top, top students all the way through. I figured out that's the only way I can actually get out of the system as soon as possible to do well at school. So no one will actually bother me. and let me do what I want to do.

Danu Poyner26:05

so doing what you needed to do kind of gave you the freedom later to to be left alone. It sounds like.

Travis Yuan26:13


Danu Poyner26:15

And what do you do when you're left alone to your own devices and follow your own path?

Travis Yuan26:20

Oh, I sing, I dance. I create artwork. I make my own clothes and

Danu Poyner26:26

own clothes? Tell me about that.

Travis Yuan26:29

I'm really good at sewing. I

don't know why I never learned professionally, I don't know how to use this sewing machine, but I sew hand.


Danu Poyner26:39

What kinds of,

Travis Yuan26:40


Danu Poyner26:40

do you make?

Travis Yuan26:41

what all sorts of things. Like I

put two old t-shirts together

Danu Poyner26:47


Travis Yuan26:47

a new one. Even haircuts, I did my own haircut at school. Cause I didn't think anyone would do it the way I want it. So I started developing these skills to kind of cater to my own needs.

Danu Poyner27:05

Yeah. You sound like you've got very clear ideas about what



Travis Yuan27:09

Yes. Yeah. I hope. Yeah, I think so.

Danu Poyner27:14

Yeah, that's good. I like it. I'm curious, is there something else you want to share before we move on?

Travis Yuan27:21

I just love languages. and I have a, this I can't, I have no other talents, but when it comes to language, I tend to learn them quite quickly. I don't know why. And they're just one of my interests.

Danu Poyner27:35

How many languages do you have?

Travis Yuan27:37

I speak Mandarin English. I understand Cantonese. I speak a little bit of Japanese and Spanish.

I'm learning Russian at the moment. Yeah. So I try to create some more connection with my half Taiwanese half russian, nephew.

Danu Poyner27:54


Travis Yuan27:55

Yeah. If I don't master the language, but I seem to be able to learn then quite well.

Danu Poyner28:04

Yeah. You pick them up quickly. It sounds like you're interested in using them to connect

with other people. is that

Travis Yuan28:12

Yeah. Yeah. When I was a kid, I thought if I could talk to most of the people in the world, that will be a very cool thing. So I checked Mandarin English and Spanish are the three most spoken languages. And I already know two why don't I learn Spanish as well. And I had my cousins living in Paraguay who speak Spanish.

So I thought, okay, I can give a go. That's why

Danu Poyner28:50

Well, I like this. Give it a go thing. I think that does your great credit. Can you say

I follow my own path in a language of your


Travis Yuan28:59

Okay. I can try and Mandarin *speaking in

Danu Poyner29:06

Glorious. Thank you.

Travis Yuan29:08

Thank you so much for embarrassing me.

Danu Poyner29:12

Ah, you're a good sport. Just to loop back a bit. What drew you to New Zealand? How did that move?

Travis Yuan29:18

So I always have a thing of improving my English growing up. And I became a English teacher in Taiwan.

My major was social studies, but I can also teach English. And I thought if I never lived in the English speaking country, how can I teach people to, speak English in a real in a appropriate way, because they know that those things we learned from textbook doesn't count.

Danu Poyner29:50

So it was a very conscious thing about getting some lived experience that would improve your expertise.

Travis Yuan29:57

Yes, yes. Yeah. And I came here for holiday in my second year of uni and I really enjoyed it

I had so much fun. I made great people. My host family was amazing. I met really good friends. Yeah. So I thought I could come back here to do something.

Danu Poyner30:16

Nice. And so that was