Are you really the professor of inclusive education?



A knock on the office door distracts my attention from the computer screen, I look around and through the glass wall I see a young woman.

RR: Come in.

Young woman: Hello are you Professor Rose?

RR: Yes. Richard will do. How can I help? Have a seat.

Young woman: I’m Sandra, I’m a second year student and I’m just starting school placement.

RR: That’s good, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

Young woman (Sandra): I hope so. But there’s a boy in my class…  Can I ask you a question? I need some help

RR: Of course, ask away. I’ll certainly help if I can.

Sandra: I have a boy with autism in my class, what should I do?

RR: What do you mean?

Sandra: What should I do with this boy?

RR: I have no idea. What do you think you should do?

Sandra: How should I teach him?

RR: I have no idea. How will you teach the rest of the class?

Sandra (looking alarmed): Aren’t you the professor of inclusive education?

RR: So they tell me.

Sandra: So you must know how to teach autistic children

RR: Well, I know a little about children on the autism spectrum, and in my career in schools I did teach many children with that label.  But, I’ve never met this boy

Sandra (becoming a little irritated and probably wishing she’d never come here): He has autism. I thought you would know about autism and could help me.

RR: Ok Sandra, let’s talk about this boy and what you know about him. Then we might be able to share a few ideas. I do want to help, but maybe we are asking the wrong questions.

Sandra looks at me with an expression that says – “so this is what it means to be a professor – the man is clearly an idiot!”

Scenes similar to this have been played out in my office a few times over the years. The problem is I have a title, and this particular epithet conveys a message that indicates knowledge. In one sense I suppose I do have a certain repository of information, including some relating to autism spectrum disorders. But as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

At some point Sandra has probably sat in a lecture theatre with a hundred other students when I have been led in to talk to the assembled masses about some aspect of promoting inclusive schooling. Sadly I see very little of undergraduate students and when I am placed in front of them in this manner I feel a bit like the late Queen Mother – wheeled in to say my piece at the opening of some special occasion. Whatever the event might have been Sandra in a somewhat deluded manner seems to think I have the answer to all her classroom problems.

I have no doubt that Sandra is going to be an excellent teacher. She is bright, inquisitive and thoughtful; all characteristics that we hope to see in those who work with children. I am sure that after this initial part of our conversation she was thinking that she had made a wasted journey along the long corridor at the end of which my office is located. I hope that by the time she left, half an hour later, she was feeling more positive about the visit.

Sandra was suffering from the kind of apprehension that I have witnessed in other undergraduate teaching students about to embark on a school placement, where they are expected to hone their newly acquired classroom management skills. She has been presented with a class list and a few notes about the individual pupils with whom she will work over the next few weeks. There, in bold letters designed to strike fear into her heart next to the name of a boy on the list are the initials ASD (autism spectrum disorder). This might equally have been ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties) or one of a number of such labels conveying the message that this boy is going to be difficult to teach.

I can quite understand why the label assigned to this individual child stood out in Sandra’s mind far more than his name. Almost everything we read about pupils on the autism spectrum begins with a discussion of “deficit characteristics”. Wing and Gould’s triad of impairments immediately raises expectations that this boy and his teachers will have difficulties communicating to each other, that he will lack basic social skills and be unable to empathise with his peers and in addition he will be inflexible in his thinking. These are indeed characteristics that we see in individuals that bear this label. However, these alone are not terribly helpful as we plan to teach the specific child.

Over the next half hour Sandra and I discussed Kevin (a far more fitting label for this child) and tried to think about how we might set about to plan for his needs. We talked about finding out about his likes and dislikes, his patterns of behaviour and routines, the ways in which he is perceived by his classmates and whether he relates to any particular individuals in the class. We covered the familiar ground of structured teaching, the use of visual support and the necessity to differentiate teaching and celebrate learning, both formal and informal. We also discussed the fact that many of the strategies and ideas we had explored would benefit all learners and need not  be restricted to an individual simply because he is said to have a special educational need.

At the end of the visit I think Sandra left a little happier than when she arrived. We had discussed ideas and considered the nature of what might be termed inclusive teaching, (though I never used this expression for fear of frightening her away). I told her that my door is open and she can return at any time. The very fact that she arrived at my office indicates that she is a thoughtful teacher who wants to do the best for all the pupils in her class. I have no doubt that Kevin will benefit from her care and professionalism and it seems to me that Sandra is destined to become an excellent teacher. In particular I asked her to come back and tell me more about Kevin, but begged her please not to tell me about his “diagnosis”.

Hopefully she now has a less stereotypical view of children described as autistic. I suspect her perception that all professors are slightly mad will be less easily changed!

12 thoughts on “Are you really the professor of inclusive education?

  1. This made me smile. I had a friendly discussion with a colleague yesterday who argues that inclusion is just not feasible because of all the challenges involved. He says it’s a pipe dream which is not practical. He is into labels.
    My belief is that we need to focus on a child’s strengths,keeping in mind his weaknesses and whatever the label is.Good read Richard.

    • Good point Maitrayee. Focusing on the strengths of our students actually makes us all realise just how many strengths they actually have.

      • Olga Solomon researches the everyday lives of children and teens with Autism and their families. She has been conducting interdisciplinary research on autism since 1997 and currently conducts research on health and service disparities in Autism Spectrum Disorders diagnoses of African American children living in Los Angeles.

        According to Solomon (2010) ‘Autism reaches in contradictory and unexpected ways to the very core of what it means to be human; Autism is used as a counterexample to empathy and intersubjectivity but also as evidence of the limitless potential and neurodiversity of the human mind’ (p. 242).

        Rarely is the voice of the Autistic person heard as a source of understanding. I think we can learn so much from getting to know the person not the label…

        • As ever Miriam, a thoughtful and well balanced comment. As individuals we all have unique needs and make our own interpretation of the world. I’m not sure that having a label enables this to do so any better.

  2. sounds a familiar scene!! Many teachers I have come across think there is a quick fix one way method to ‘fix’ children with SEN!! Sadly there aren’t many who would question and seek help like Sandra!! But the small percentage who do push ahead with trying to learn, work, correct, learn – is gradually increasing. In my experience the younger ones are the ones who do this readily. Older experienced teachers do have some kind of mental block most of the time and either feel it is a waste of time trying to do anything or feel ‘what can you [a special educator/professional] do that I can’t do?’
    It is very important to be accessible to those who want to inquire, share and learn without any strings attached. Parents, teachers and others involved in the lives of children all need to do this to work towards an inclusive society. In Brindavan, we have many people coming in- teachers, parents – seeking information and wanting to share experiences in order to work towards this. This kind of ‘walk in inquiry’ does wonders and it is to me a great source of learning. The first module of the Masters’s program does a very good job of opening up a whole diverse way of thinking and looking at Inclusion. Each time, there is something to learn!!

    • I agree, I think I came to the first module of the Masters program with similar questions- I also came expecting to learn about specific strategies that help “deal” with corresponding labels. While I did learn a lot about a variety of strategies, I also realized the danger of labels and the unnecessary fear they bring with them. I understood that including each student within the classroom, means looking at their individual needs- not restricting this to a label they may or may not have.

      • Hi Neetha. Thank you for commenting. I know that in the community where you work the labels associated with poverty, gender and caste are as damaging as those attached to special educational needs and disability. Once the individual has a combination of multiple labels – such as poor, low caste, disabled woman, the task of providing them with equal opportunities intensifies. The work that you do is very important and whilst at times I am sure that you feel you are making little progress it is essential to keep going. Our own place in the wider scheme of things is of little consequence if we don’t try to understand how we can improve the lives of the rest of our community. When the going gets tough I find it helpful to remember the words of Gandhi:-
        “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

  3. I am marking MA research proposals and I am tired of adding notes drawing students’ attention to the language they use. And even those who are more inclusive and well meaning focus on the ‘needs’ (read ‘deficits’) of the child. While I do not refute the idea that we all have needs, it is remarkable how difficult it is for a teacher to ask the question ‘am I the problem?’ Even more difficult is challenging the system which creates the needs. So, children have language ‘deficits’ because they do not attain the ‘expected’ level for ‘their age’. Suddenly, a short and innocous sentence opens up a fathomless ravine of ‘common sense’ ideas which make sense and therefore must be true. Like for Sandra, coming to terms with the fact that such ideas are contested requires a major shift in their worldview. So yes, inclusion is full of challenges. I am not denying this to be the case. However, it is practical and feasible if we see such challenges not as problems with no solution, but as opportunities to move beyond the horizons cast upon us.

  4. Jayashree, I was thinking about the attitudes of older teachers ( I think I would fall into that category) and the danger of that “mental block” that hinders one from asking for help, and acknowledging that we dont have all the answers. Removal of that egoistic “mental block” is key in an inclusive classroom, to be accepting of the fact that I have much to learn from “younger, inexperienced” colleagues and from students with SEN and otherwise. I visualise a circle where everyone sits on the same level – teachers, special educators and students – an equal safe space where there is an exchange of ideas and learning, noone is better than the other!!
    Richard, I did enjoy the read, had me smiling- there are times when I feel like Sandra!!

    • Hi Shuba. I like your circle idea – this is a really democratic view. With regards to learning from each other across the generations, I think the post Long Haul Learning that I put up a couple of days ago indicates the respect that we need to share across ages, cultures and approaches to learning.
      Incidentally if you class yourself as an older learner what does that make me??

      • Richard, it was actually the Long Haul Learning post that triggered my reflections on the “egoistic teacher”. Jayashree’s observation that it seemed more prevalent among “older teachers” did make me take a step back and look at my own practice.
        As for me being the “older” learner, I guess that would make you the “wiser” learner!!!

        • Ah Shuba, we should never assume that older always equates to wiser!
          Measure not man by the length of his days but rather by the use he makes of them.

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