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Lessons Learned

National Inclusive Education Month 2016 – Commentary #1

By Isabel Killoran, PhD

Isabel Killoran Img
Isabel Killoran, PhD., Associate Professor, York University, Faculty of Education

For a person who is known to be rather verbose at times, I was surprised by my struggle to write a piece for the readers of ‘21 days of inclusive education’. Weeks flitted by with nothing to show but a dozen abandoned first paragraphs. As I sat in the emergency room with my daughter, for yet another mind-numbing 14 hours, I fretted about a) how I was going to get my marking done in time to meet the university deadline for grade submission (because of course I came without my laptop or marking in the hope that this visit would be different than all the rest); b) how I was going to prepare for the meeting at my daughter’ s school to discuss how to salvage her current grade 11 courses and plan for yet another semester that would require major accommodation; and c) how I was going to write this piece, which was now officially overdue.

Finally, it came to me. I am in the unique position of experiencing inclusive education, or the lack thereof, from several perspectives, that of a mother, a teacher and a teacher educator. I don’t always look upon these experiences as positive opportunities but I have learned many important lessons along the way, some of which I will share with you now.

There isn’t a hierarchy of roles. What I experience and learn in one position illuminates the successes and struggles in another. I would not want to give up any of the roles because without all of them I would not have the vision I do for education. I cannot isolate my experiences from each other but I will try to disentangle the key lessons I have learned.

As a Teacher:
I have always believed, both as a student and as a teacher, that there is something fundamentally flawed with our school system. As a ‘behaviour’ teacher, assigned to a classroom in a far off wing or basement, I quickly learned what didn’t work. Twenty-five years have passed since I began my career as an educator and I have yet to read, learn or experience anything that shifted my perception from those first few years of teaching.

Inclusion can be lonely. On the surface this makes no sense. How can one be lonely if everyone is included? The reality is not everyone you work with will support your attempt to be inclusive. Finding yourself a like-minded community, even if it’ s not in your school, is critical to stave off burnout.

You can always do more; but you can’t do everything. As new teachers it is important to give oneself the room to make mistakes as well as to focus on specific areas of growth each year. Building a network is key. Can you team-teach with another colleague? Can your grade or division plan together? Can you include educational assistants and child and youth workers in your planning and engage them more effectively so you are free to work with each of the students in the class? Doing any of these will help to foster a stronger teaching community.

As a Parent:
Even though I am a teacher and I am confident in my knowledge about inclusion, I still get nervous before parent interviews and IPRCs. It seems a bit ridiculous considering my background but it does suggest the incredible power that schools hold. If, as a parent, you are unsure of the IPRC process or you feel overwhelmed with it, bring someone with you. I have done this numerous times. Parents don’t always know that they can invite someone to support them.

If something doesn’t make sense, investigate further. In my experience, if something seems off there is a good chance it is being done incorrectly. Don’ t assume that all teachers and administrators know about accommodations and modifications, differentiation, universal design for learning, or are up to date with Ministry policies and legislation. There is a lot to keep up with and sometimes it seems like a bad game of telephone as information makes its way from Ministry intention to practice.

I have had some fantastic experiences as a parent. I am particularly fond of the memory of the first moment in my son’ s education that I witnessed a teacher who was fully inclusive. It was parent interviews and a long-term occasional teacher was filling in for his teacher while she was on parental leave. As I sat there listening, I was taken aback. I had never heard a teacher talk about my son this way. The more I listened the more I realized that she was describing the child I knew. Why would this be shocking? Shouldn’t all parents feel that their child’s teacher enjoys and cares about their child in the same way they do? I couldn’t contain my excitement as I asked her where she went to school? She replied with the name of the place she did her B.Ed. Although we have good Faculties of Education in Ontario, I knew that wasn’t the reason for her approach. “How about where you studied before the Faculty?” I asked. And there was the answer…. An early childhood education program. She had taken the time to get to know my son outside of academics. She commented on how pleased she was she moved him to the front of the class, regardless of the reason why, because by doing so she discovered how unbelievably funny he is … but you have to be close, and listening, to catch it all from under his breath. I left the meeting in tears because this teacher had made it her responsibility to get to know my child on a level others had not. I knew that his teacher understood and appreciated him the way I did and that he would learn more that year than any other.

As a Teacher Educator:
I tell my Faculty of Education and graduate students that what I want most is to make them mad. At the same time, I also hope to empower them to make a positive difference in children’ s lives. My students have different expectations than mine. My undergraduate students come with the assumption that I am going to tell them “how” to include everyone or at the very least prepare them to be “special educators”. It saddens me to see such eager young minds come to teaching believing that isolating students from their peers is the approach and setting that would make them meaningful teachers. Gently I start planting the seed that all teachers are special educators and perhaps if they continue in the course with an open mind they may learn a better way.

There is always some resistance and it is often a result of personal experiences within a failing system. I have 36 hours to shift them. Not a moment can be wasted. I start by having them engage with the why. This is always an individual journey and the learning curve can be steep. The shifting happens slowly for some, immediately for others. But when it happens, they never look at their role as an educator the same way. They recognize the ethical responsibility they have to all of their students. They describe it as having a new lens through which to view the world. Once they put this lens on, they cannot take it off. They see everything with new insight and a deepened commitment to equity and social justice. They feel empowered and have a greater sense of self-efficacy, which we know will result in more inclusive practice.

It is as a teacher educator that I most often meld together my experiences as a classroom teacher, a parent and a teacher educator. I particularly enjoy sharing with them the experiences I have had that demonstrate an approach to education that is inclusive and holistic. Although I have probably experienced just as many negative experiences, I think it is important for them to hear that it can work, that it must work. They will encounter naysayers throughout their education and their career. I will not be one of them. I work to create a community of committed educators who have a safe place to land when the going gets tough; and it does get tough. I never tell them inclusion is easy. In fact, I prepare them for the opposite; but in the end, it will all be worth it.

Isabel Killoranis an Associate Professor at York University, Faculty of Education. She is also cross-appointed to the Graduate Program in Critical Disability Studies. Isabel began her career as a primary/junior teacher with a special education specialist. Many of those years were spent working with students who had been identified as having a behaviour exceptionality. The difficulty Isabel had securing the identified students’ right to an inclusive experience inspired her to further her education and begin the process of changing educators’ (mis)perceptions about inclusion and disability.