Sitting here on the last day of the month, I have been reflecting on my practice, my individual students, and the mix of students both in my room and across the school. This year is off to a fabulous start. The students of my school are happy, often laughter and smiles fill the hallway, innovative teaching is happening that excites the teachers, and routines are beginning to stick. These are all checks in my mind!
However, there is a quiet, yet simmering, negative sentiment weaving through the school. There is a level of frustration because some teachers do not feel supported enough with their 'challenging' students. 'I do not feel safe', 'other students are not learning', and 'I'm not trained to do this' are common phrases I am hearing often across various contexts and school settings. This is not a unique problem to my school. We read about the impact of cuts to education all the time across most of the western world. Many of my clients have been talking to me about the challenges of teaching in inclusive classrooms.
I never know if it is an easy task to define Inclusion or it is a challenging one. Inclusion is, by definition, the act of being including or including an individual or group with a group or structure. It seems pretty simple- so why isn’t it simple when it comes to education?
To answer this question, I believe we have to look back at the historical context of Inclusion and how that context shaped the journey today. I am going to keep this light and shy of detail, but, if you are interested, there are many amazing academic articles and publications that shed light on the timeline of Inclusive Education. Please keep in mind, that this is a general timeline and not specific to any one country or area.
How did we get here, to 2018?
The other day, I sent out an email to classroom teachers with some information. In this email, I included a list of 5-6 actionable steps to increase accessibility for the students with whom I was connecting. The list was filled with suggestions to think about- nothing more, nothing less. My mistake was not writing that these are suggestions of what you can do and not reflections on what you are not doing. I should have applauded the teachers for all the changes and routines they have implemented to increase inclusivity of their students. You see, not even two hours after I hit send I had one teacher venture down to the opposite end of the school to visit me about my email. This particular teacher is extremely rigid, traditional, and she sticks to her routines year-after-year. However, she has made a few changes to increase ease of movement and accessibility for two of her little munchkins this year. Despite being small changes, they have benefitted the students and have demonstrated this teacher’s commitment to teaching to her students regardless of what that means for ‘her style’. These changes were a deviation from her usual routines, but she did them for the students and with the students in mind. In my email, I should have acknowledged what teachers are doing and not just what they can do. This learning experience brings me to my first point in my checklist for creating an inclusive classroom.
I would like to teach and impart my knowledge to my students. Yet, I notice that they sometimes do not listen to me especially when I use the traditional style of teaching. Even if I say that phones are not allowed in class, they find ways in order to check their social media accounts. They can tweet that they are bored with what I am saying. They may even take pictures of the seatwork that they have to do while commenting that they have “no idea” about what they are going to do.
This has prompted me to make some changes with the way that I teach over the past years. I truly want the students to learn so I have made some effort in learning more about the visual arts. I have started checking social media websites. I have learned more about the terms that the new generation is using. This has made me relate to my students more. There is one issue though: I have noticed that in order to make an appealing lesson, it will take me hours before I can finish with one. This can be hard especially when I am handling more than one class. I expect that a lot of other educators are going through the same issues too.
At staff orientation this week, I was asked by my administrators to describe the impact I want to leave on the students of the school. How do I want the students to feel after interacting with me? The answer is simple- valued. I want all students to feel valued. I want them to feel included. I want them to feel important. And I want the students to know that they are all capable learners. My impact on students is that they are all expected to learn because I know they can!
The answer is so simple that I wondered why they even asked us that question. The difficulty is in the path to realizing my impact goal. How can I ensure all students, in my school community, feel valued? I picked valued as my single impact word because in an inclusive classroom all students are viewed as equal members in the community. All students are included appropriately, and all students are given the opportunity to be present in their learning and present in their school community in an inclusive classroom; as well, all students are able to achieve new learning and build on their strengths. When we give all our students the opportunity to learn and to grow, we let them know that we value them as a community member and as an individual. As one single teacher, how can I make this HUGE impact on my students and the rest of the students at our school?