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High School Principals: Reaching Out to be Inclusive

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #8

By Angèla AuCoin, PhD

8.AngelaAuCoin1.jpgI’ve been passionate about inclusive education since the early 1990’s. At that time, methods and resource teachers where I worked were gradually being trained to spend more time in the classroom helping teachers help students. As a novice teacher in Yellowknife Catholic Schools, it was an inspiring time. I was empowered to believe that every one of my students had the potential AND should have the opportunity to excel.

Leah Von Hagen, my school principal, was leading the way and I was determined to keep up with her by staying informed on the latest inclusive educational research and putting those new strategies into practice. As a young teacher, I trusted that my principal would offer the necessary tools that I needed to better understand and help my students. However her support did not stop there. Her vision and leadership skills were exceptional and proved to be fundamental to the success that we achieved in all of our classrooms.

It has been 25 years since my first days of teaching and I’m still at awe with what school principals can accomplish. As leaders, they have the opportunity to change not only their school culture but the culture of their entire community. When principals learn about the philosophy and the practices of inclusive education, more and more teachers and parents reach out and ask how they can make it happen.

Over the years, it seems elementary school principals have been first to get involved with inclusion. I have often been told that the organisational structure of their schools make it easier for them to embrace this philosophy. At one point, I asked myself if inclusive education was even possible at the high school level. Would we have to modify the core structure of these schools in order to make inclusion work?

Today, working as a university professor in the field of inclusive education, I attempt to find answers to such questions. Lately, I’ve made some interesting personal discoveries. I have had several high school principals came forward asking critical questions. They have asked:

• How do I make sure that EVERY student is given the opportunity to strive for the best?

• How do we reduce barriers?

• How do I provide a safe place for my students as well as for my teachers?

Principals and teachers in the high schools in the region where I live and work are asking these questions, and many more. This has provided an opportunity for entire communities to get together and consider how we can create a safe and welcoming place in high school for all our students.

Working on a daily basis with these leaders, I am reminded that it is not necessarily the system that makes or breaks the possibility of inclusive education. It is the people who manage the schools that make the difference! The high school principals who make inclusion work share common traits. They all have a collective approach to problem solving. They believe that their teachers have the capacity to let each of their students shine. They creatively seek solutions to prevent challenging situations from becoming a crisis.

But most of all, I have learned that these principals have one characteristic in common – a passion for success!

They are passionate about the success of their teachers and their students. They are passionate about creating a learning community that supports all it’s members. Just as my principal, Leah Von Hagen was able to make me feel successful and empowered as a young teacher, our leaders in high schools today, have the same power to ignite passion and determination.

Together we need to make things right for ALL our students from the moment they enter our schools to the moment they leave.

Let’s work together and support more and more high school principals lead the way to inclusion and student success!

Angèla AuCoin est professeure agrégée au Département d’enseignement au primaire et de psychopédagogie à la Faculté des sciences de l’éducation de l’Université de Moncton. Après diverses expériences d’enseignement, dont quelques années à titre d’enseignante ressource, elle entreprend des études doctorales en éducation qu’elle complétait avec succès en décembre 2009 par la soutenance d’une thèse portant l’historique, le cadre légal et le vécu de l’inclusion scolaire chez les Acadiens et les Acadiennes de la Nouvelle-Écosse, au Canada. Ses activités d’enseignement et de recherche tournent autour de plusieurs centres d’intérêt, dont la pédagogie différenciée, l’inclusion scolaire et l’éducation aux droits humains. Depuis sa courte carrière comme professeure universitaire, elle a publié plusieurs articles au sujet de l’inclusion scolaire. En 2012, elle publia conjointement avec son collègue Gordon Porter un rapport sur la situation actuelle de l’inclusion scolaire au Nouveau-Brunswick, Canada soit Consolider l’inclusion, Consolider nos écoles.

Angèla AuCoin is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick.