“Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
When I began writing this blog I wondered if anyone would bother reading, let alone respond. One of the strange things about writing anything for publication is that you have little idea about who is reading your work or what they think. It is therefore heartening to find that some people have returned to these pages several times and it is even more rewarding to find individuals posting comments and giving me the opportunity to learn from them.
Yesterday I wrote a piece under the title “The Labels of Expertism” – yes, I know, I’ve already apologised for that ghastly word! In this brief discourse I suggested that in some ways the assignment of a label that implied a teacher was an expert in special education or the promotion of inclusion, could actually establish a barrier to achieving the very progress that we have hoped to see in the furtherance of inclusive schools. This was not to imply that such specialists don’t have an important role to play, neither was it intended to challenge the expertise of individuals who bear certain titles, such as special educator or resource teacher. My concerns were more about the possibility that other teachers, perhaps feeling less secure in their knowledge of how to address the needs of children who may challenge their approaches to teaching, may end up either off-loading these children onto the specialist, or in some cases resenting their presence in their classes.
Two colleagues posted thoughtful replies both of which indicated the importance of debating this issue. Both caused me to think further about the ways in which we attempt to support teachers and why we so often fail to achieve the results for which we had hoped. Let me introduce you briefly to these two perceptive respondents.
Tim Loreman is Dean of Research at Concordia, University College of Alberta, Canada. I have known Tim’s work in the field of inclusion for many years. His book Inclusive Education: Supporting Diversity in the Classroom, written with Joanne Deppeler and David Harvey is one to which I often refer students who are looking for a source of practical advice on developing inclusive approaches to teaching and learning. A second book Love as Pedagogy provides readers with an understanding of the empathetic philosophy that underpins Tim’s important contributions to education. Shuba Thomas is an Indian student on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education Programme on which I teach in Bangalore. She is an experienced teacher, with a passion for mathematics and a profound commitment to children who have been left on the margins of classrooms as a result of finding difficulties with learning. Both of these individuals have contributed significantly to my learning and continue to shape the ways in which I look at education.
In his reply to yesterday’s entry on this blog, Tim wrote “Where challenges for the inclusive classroom arise our specialists can help us to pinpoint the issues and then solve them through collegial dialogue. But only when they explore the context with us first. This might seem a bit of a naive view, but I don’t see why we can’t set our egos aside and just be educators”. The term collegial dialogue is one that particularly appeals to me as an important condition that we must strive to achieve if we are to be supportive of teachers who may be less enthusiastic about inclusion than we are. Shuba’s equally perceptive view that “Empowering teachers with necessary skills to work with SEN kids and involving the Special educator in various aspects of the general classroom whether it is lesson planning, assessment etc will help reduce the notion of “expertism” and reduce further marginalisation of children with special needs” presents a similar argument to that expressed by Tim.
Both of these valued colleagues highlight the necessity for the specialist to depart from their current domains and to enter the classroom alongside teachers in order to support a process of change. Tim’s suggestion that the specialist needs to explore the context is critical here. Whilst the specialist teacher may have knowledge and understanding about special educational needs that is not common to many teachers, this is of little value unless they understand the context in which the general teacher works and can provide support that is empathetic and practicable in the classroom situation. As Shuba states, the actions we take must be seen to be empowering and enable teachers to gain confidence in their craft. For this to happen we must indeed set aside our egos in order to be seen as team players alongside others rather than experts who remain aloof.
The need to continually review the way in which we approach teachers is paramount. If we set ourselves on a pedestal as the possessors of unique understanding or as guardians of knowledge then we will surely alienate the very individuals who can make a difference for the inclusion of all learners. We must show some humility here and begin by recognising that the vast majority of teachers have levels of expertise and commitment upon which we can build and share in the development of a blueprint for inclusion. The significant points made by Tim and Shuba about the relationship between the “expert” and those upon whom they would wish to impart their expertise need to be explored further by all of us who claim to be supporting the route towards justice in education and more inclusive schools. I am grateful to both of them for adding to my learning opportunities and hopefully enabling others to think about these matters.