A passion for physical education

Michael Slobodov helps disabled kids to cope in the physical world.

Michael Slobodov at work  (photo credit: TZOHAR LE-TZOHAR)
Michael Slobodov at work
(photo credit: TZOHAR LE-TZOHAR)
Children who live with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities require highly motivated and dedicated teachers. Israel’s Tzohar Le-Tohar schools and therapy centers expect their teachers to have those qualities, but no teacher is more passionately dedicated to his disabled students than Michael Slobodov.
Slobodov, 61, has taught in the northern branch of Tzohar Le-Tohar for 25 years. He teaches physical education.
But he’s really teaching skills to strengthen and help his students cope better with their disabilities throughout their lives.
Slobodov made aliya with his family in 1991, settling in the small northern town of Shlomi, where they still live.
His field for many years had been in professional athletics, but he also had considerable experience in quite another field. In Russia, half his working day was spent training high-level athletes. The other half was teaching disabled children to reach their potential through physical activity.
He immediately began studies at the Wingate Institute. After graduating, he worked at the Nahariya municipality’s school for gymnastic athletics. He’s now the principal there, traveling to Nahariya in the afternoons when his day at Tzohar Le-Tohar is over. But he mentions that only in passing. His passion is educating special-needs children, and most of his working hours are dedicated to them. He’s taught at Tzohar Le-Tohar – which has four schools – for the past 25 years and it sounds like he has no plans to retire.
His system is based on the theory of muscle memory, which is being able to repeat a physical movement automatically, as a result of having made that movement regularly over time. Playing the piano and typing are often cited as examples of movements that rely on muscle memory. But Slobodov takes the theory further. He has evolved techniques that encourage disabled children to reach their fullest physical and cognitive potentials through repeated movement.
“These exercises involve often-repeated movements. Their real aim is to help the children acquire life skills. I teach a child not only to jump, but to jump in order to regain balance and ultimately walk better. I want them to reach the point where they can solve everyday problems as independently as possible, each according to his or her ability. For example, many can’t button their shirts or tie shoelaces. I teach alternative ways to do those things. My job is to help them cultivate their motor skills so that they can eventually do ordinary things like dress and feed themselves.”
The challenges are many, and varied.
Some children, especially those living with CP, arrive at the school using one hand only. For them, Slobodov invented a game where they have to draw water from an improvised “well,” with a rope.
“They enjoy it,” he says with a twinkle.
“They get to spill water. But to get to the fun part, they must use both hands.
It’s a joy to watch such children gaining strength in their formerly useless hands.
Another example: kids who at first can’t walk often manage to climb a rubber wall. The skills acquired eventually help them walk. We even have kids who were paralyzed, and who with physiotherapy and exercise are now walking,” he says with pride.
Slobodov maintains that mental functions also improve with exercises.
“The brain works faster when exercising and playing games,” he says. “Math and reading skills improve with floor and card games that involve memory.
Games that blend fine and gross motor movements also improve awareness of the self in physical space, and balance.
We have many games. I’m practical, not theoretical,” he adds. “I don’t work behind a desk, I’m in the physical world.
“The children’s successes give me, the teacher, strength,” he says energetically.
“I absolutely identify as a teacher, 24 hours a day. I love it that everyone calls me ‘hamoreh Michael’ [Michael the teacher]. I wake up in the morning with the day’s classes already sorted out in my mind.”
The school provides Slobodov with all the equipment he requires, including a large sports hall.
“The management gives me all the resources I ask for, so I can build each student a program that fits his or her unique needs. And my gym is colorful, joyful; it looks like a Luna Park. I do everything to interest and motivate the kids visually. The result is that they work hard without noticing it. They enjoy themselves, learn and progress.”
When existing gym equipment doesn’t fit a child’s needs, he simply builds it himself.
“I first built home gym equipment for my own kids, back in Russia 35 years ago,” he remembers. “I believe in developing kids’ cognitive and muscular skills from babyhood. Russian schools didn’t have physical education then, so I learned carpentry to build what I wanted for my family. Nowadays,” he says laughing, “my Israeli grandchildren are asking me to build them a pool!” Asked if every disabled child benefits from his system, Slobodov grows sober again.
“Every child has unique challenges,” he explains. “The school has great success stories.
I’m thinking of one of our graduates who only has one hand, but who today participates in society, works and earns a salary as a valued supermarket worker. But sometimes the stories are not so happy, especially with kids who aren’t motivated. We can only work up to the limits of the student’s ability.”
It’s important to Slobodov that all the school’s teachers see themselves as one team with a common goal: to help disabled youngsters gain the skills that will get them through life. Young teachers especially benefit from exposure to each other’s work, he says.
“A teacher may be strong in his or her field, but they must also learn a certain humility, as it were. They must be motivated to reach every single student. A teacher must never give up, even with the hardest cases,” he exhorts.
“There’s always a way to connect with a child.
Our work has far-reaching effects, for when a disabled child becomes more independent, that eases the lives of parents and caretakers too.”
He notes that he’s a tough teacher.
“I never give up. A teacher can be a friend, but a friend can’t be a teacher. First be a teacher, then you can be a friend. We’re not babysitters, we’re educators. And let me tell you how happy and proud we are to see the students’ progress.”
Hamoreh Michael shows a certain humility himself, as he asked this reporter to highlight Tzohar-Le-Tohar’s support of his ideas and the great teamwork between all the staff.
And he has fans among the parents, as Chaya Ben Baruch from Safed attests. She has a child with Down syndrome studying at the northern branch of Tzohar Le-Tohar in Rechasim.
Ben Baruch says, “Michael is one of those special, creative, innovative teachers that you make you feel blessed because he’s touched the life of your special needs child. My son can now climb a four-meter climbing wall with confidence. It’s a big thing, a great change for the better in his ability to physically move and walk. In his quiet, firm, reassuring manner, Michael accomplishes small miracles with disabled children.”