Principal Nancy Sanders is involved in special education at Pleasantville Public School in Richmond Hill.
Thriving on diversity
Principal Nancy Sanders examines what goes into helping first-year teachers succeed in teaching kids with special needs in the regular classroom.
A number of years ago, while supervising teaching candidates, I became aware of the subtle means we educators have to define and communicate what constitutes "normal" teaching practice.
As I settled into my observation role, I heard the classroom teacher remind a group of students to go to their "other class," as he excused them from their Grade 2 classroom.
Another time, a teacher whispered in my ear, "Ignore the girl in the blue shirt, she's special ed."
It seemed that teaching identified students was outside the realm of normal teaching practice.
Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers need to be prepared for the diversity of learners that sit before them. In most of our classrooms, learners deemed exceptional await meaningful instruction, and according to our own standards of practice, we are expected to understand, accommodate, adapt and modify for students with special needs.
As an elementary school principal, I see the vast majority of today's parents looking to regular class placements for their special needs children. We kept this desire in mind last year, as our school opened with nine first-year teachers of a total staff of 27.
Given the success of our first year together, I believe it is worth examining the key attributes of a teacher who can not only teach within an inclusive setting, but who will come to thrive in it.
Strong Skill Base
Although many would feel it should go without saying, the teacher must have a strong skill base upon which to build. While it is widely accepted that teaching exceptional students requires special knowledge and skills, such skills are premised on strong teaching skills in general.
Teachers who possess a range of teaching strategies are better able to adapt, modify or readdress curriculum as the need arises.
Teachers must truly embrace the notion of ongoing professional growth, and do so with enthusiasm. These teachers see themselves as always in the making, always seeking to know more or understand differently.
We recently began working with a student diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic condition that results in learning disabilities and stunted growth. This set us on an odyssey of learning together-through the student, the parent and a variety of professional resources.
Similarly, when our board's occupational therapist began speaking about weighted vests and hug machines for some of our autistic students, we opened ourselves to new learning.
Such learning is best explored within a team, and there is no doubt that we grow as professionals when we interact with others in real situations.
For teachers to be successful in an inclusionary setting, they must be open to learning from others. They must ask the questions and seek the support of peers-both of which may be difficult for a beginning teacher. Thus, the support of experienced teachers and school administration is imperative.
Last year, we established an in-school teacher mentor program, in which all new teachers selected a mentor from among our experienced staff. In addition to the numerous hours of support veteran teachers provided, some in-class release time was made available for mutual classroom visits.
Over time, the dialogue widened from resources and strategies to judging lesson pacing, individualizing curriculum and writing report card comments. Teachers who are willing to interact with others will come to construct meaning and practice together.
In the same way, successful teachers of special needs students must be willing to learn from other students who have previously learned alongside exceptional students. Early in the year, one of our autistic students removed his shoes and began throwing them about the gymnasium.
One of his classmates explained, "He always does this at first, then he gets used to his shoes again." This student then walked him over to the bench, helped him put the shoes back on, and both quickly rejoined the group. This scenario could have played out quite differently if the teacher had asserted her authority rather than follow the lead of a student who knew that particular child.
Successful teachers of special needs students seek parental input. They not only listen to family perspective, they truly respect the notion of placement "consistent with parent choice." Often, these teachers go beyond and meet with a parent in June regarding a September placement, or join administration in a home visit, or even meet with parents prior to school opening to prepare for transition concerns.
In turn, administrators must support teachers in dealing with difficult parental situations.
Successful teachers of special needs students may not have all the teaching strategies perfectly established, but they do come to the profession with a teaching approach that embraces all.
It is my job to ensure that teachers weave what Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition calls "webs of relationship" that extend beyond support and get to a level of collegial care that assumes shared responsibility.
Ultimately, inclusion is about living a philosophy in daily practice. It is about making a determined choice that acknowledges that we are all responsible for one another.
Nancy Sanders has been the principal of Pleasantville Public School in Richmond Hill since March 2000 and has been an educator since 1980. She has taught in both the elementary and secondary panels. She continues to teach in the teacher education program at York University.
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