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.
Inclusion is not about creating dangerous situations. Schools, like any community, need to be safe for everyone. However, this does not mean that students who can act aggressively or in an unpredictable way do not get a seat at the table. On the flip side, it does not mean that the very quiet student who rarely makes a peep is left to her own devices either. The very core of inclusion is about the individual as a valued member of a mix of people in a community.
The first purpose of inclusive education is to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate with the class and in their learning. As educators, this means we need to create authentic experiences throughout the day that allow and ensure each member of our class is taking part in your class experience. The second purpose of inclusive education is to ensure all students are given the opportunity to be present (and want to be present) in your classroom and in the school. In other words, we need to create systems and structures in our classrooms (and our schools) that are welcoming and inviting to everyone. Building a real and respectful relationship with each student is HUGE. Not only will you get to know the child's strengths and challenges, but you will connect with the child as an individual. This connection, often, acts as a driving force in your planning & programming. You will begin to think about the variation of learning and needs in your class as a part of your practice rather than being a challenge in your practice.
This leads me into my last point, in an inclusive education system the focus of learning is on all students achieving. Often, I hear 'but so and so does nothing all day in the classroom, so how can I report on them?' or 'they are going to get D's on their report card because they can't do what everyone else is doing". Writing about curriculums & standardized assessments as part of an inclusive system is a topic for another post, BUT I will say the focus of learning is on the student and not the curriculum (or report card) in an inclusive setting. In today's schools, there is a substantial percentage of students (in Nova Scotia our records show about 7% of students are on IPPs and 27% of students are on adaptations) who require varying levels of support in school. Rather than focusing on what the curriculum tells me my students should be doing, I take the concept and plan the lesson based on the spectrum of variation. My lesson strategy is based on how I can teach this concept to the students on the furthest ends of the spectrum of learners rather than teaching to the middle. There are a few students within the school who are working from a very individualized curriculum. For these students, I will make sure I plan for appropriate opportunities to learn even if the opportunity varies greatly from majority of the group.
As teachers we always worry about how other students may be affected by our 'challenging' students- you would be amiss if you didn't. The reality is schools need to be a welcoming, inviting, and positive places for all of our students. Schools cannot be institutions of 'keeping a lid on things' or managing, they need to be institutions of learning. In an inclusive system, our students learn how to grow and develop as students. They also learn how to be a part of a diverse community. The struggle becomes too much when, with limited resources and supports, class composition is not accounted for in the early planning stages. However, we still need to ensure that all students have opportunities to be present, participative, and to achieve. One way to do this is to make collaborating with your colleagues a must! Working as a team to reduce the pull on you is beneficial in teaching to the spectrum of learners. Instead of having students 'pulled-out' for resource support, ask the resource teacher to come in and work with groups in your classroom (or hallway). As the classroom teacher, you can manage the activity and the planning and then have support in the execution. Small groups are not only a great way to connect with each student, but it allows a different level of comfort for our students. Obviously building a relationship with each student is important in building trust, risk taking, and connecting, but it gives you unique insight into when you can challenge a student or when to guide a child gently. Another strategy you can use is a system of success in the classroom paired with success in an alternative setting (of learning) to provide support to a student who has difficulty with self-regulation.
Teachers are well trained to support any student! Sometimes it does not feel that way- I know, but you can do it. We have an extensive bag of tricks to pull from, but kiddos are unique individuals. The tricks we carry may need some tweaking in order to be applied to new contexts. Inclusion is a journey. If something does not work, reflect and collaborate. Come back to the situation and adjust your approach. When we teach and connect with our students, we do so with the best of intentions. We will make 'mistakes' from which we learn. It is our students who benefit from our learning. When we shift our mind from the expected and stop looking at students as meeting or not meeting to my class consists of a spectrum of learners, the stress of 'the report' lessons. When we focus on expecting our students to do a prescribed set of tasks for a certain grade we, subconsciously, categorize our students into groups of those who can and those who cannot. Education becomes black and white. However, when we shift our mind towards all my students need to have opportunities to be learners in my class, the grey area grows, and the uncertainty is a bit nail-biting. BUT your students will benefit and so will your practice. Rather than viewing each grade as an exact destination, each year becomes a journey of learning for all your students.
Inclusive education is almost 30 years old (20 in some areas), but we have not arrived. There is not script or a simple plan in how to teach inclusively. It is a mindset of openness, value, and equity. Inclusion works best when teachers work together, learn from one another, and accept that there is some unknown. You are professionals and you are good at what you do. Do not be afraid to ask for help!