A few days ago I referred to a posting by Kanwal Singh who had responded to my article “Empathy not blame – a critical component of change”. Kanwal had suggested that in working with teachers to promote inclusion we needed to approach this task “not as ‘experts’ but as ‘partners’”. This is certainly a notion to which I relate but also one that I feel deserves a little more consideration.
Whenever we experience difficulties and need to seek help we look to someone who we feel has the expertise to assist us. If my car breaks down I seek out a qualified mechanic who I hope will understand how to fix the problem. I do so in the knowledge that the mechanic has far greater expertise than myself. It is therefore understandable that teachers who may be experiencing difficulties in addressing the needs of a child will look for a special education “expert” to provide assistance.
Over the years a good number of teachers have devoted their time to gaining professional expertise and knowledge aimed at supporting pupils who present teachers with a range of difficulties. I myself was just one such teacher and for many years worked as a “special educator” teaching children who were seen by others as problematic, and also trying to pass my knowledge on to others. For a number of years now I have taught on university accredited courses which have aimed to provide teachers and other professionals with the understanding and knowledge to themselves fulfil the role of special educators and to support their colleagues in school.
I believe that this work has been worthwhile and hopefully beneficial to many teachers and the pupils with whom they work. But I also have some apprehensions about this way of working and will highlight just two of these here.
Firstly, if we continue to invest all of the expertise in a few teachers who then become special education experts are we enabling other teachers to abdicate their responsibilities for those children in their classes who have difficulties with learning? I am not suggesting for a moment that these teachers are in any way deliberately negligent. I know for a fact that most are committed professionals who work incredibly hard to provide learning opportunities to their pupils. However, there is a risk that by perpetuating a model of special education expertise, these teachers may not themselves feel the necessary incentive to further their own knowledge, skills and understanding and become more effective in addressing diversity in the classroom. In these circumstances ownership of the difficulties and responsibility for their management remains with the expert and other teachers do not themselves gain the necessary expertise to become more effective.
My second concern is for the special educators themselves. Is there a danger, I wonder that these dedicated professionals may be seen as being in possession of unique knowledge that is beyond the remit of other teachers? Might it be the case that others will view them as having an expertise that is unattainable for the majority of teachers? If this is the case is there a risk that when the special educator is unable to “solve the problems” of a child that they will lose credibility and the pupils needs will go unmet? If this happens it is both the special educator who has difficulties in loss of credibility and the pupil whose “problems” are seen as insoluble. After all, if the expert can’t address the issues, what hope is there for the class teacher? My concerns here centre around the mystique that can, if we are not careful, surround the skills, knowledge and understanding associated with the special educational needs expert.
This is a difficult issue and one that needs careful management if we are to avoid either losing expertise or perpetuating the model of teacher dependency that we may have created. I am certainly not suggesting that we do not need teachers who have exceptional skills and understanding in relation to pupils described as having special educational needs. I have seen the benefits that both teachers and pupils have gained through working with such expert professionals. Subject expertise has always been an essential feature of our schools. Indeed we know the advantages that specialist maths teachers or modern languages teachers bring to a school and would not wish to deny the application of any expertise for the improvement of our education systems. I know of teachers who have studied hard and developed significant expertise in planning for the needs of specific groups of learners who have been labelled as having social emotional and behavioural difficulties, or autism spectrum disorders for instance, and I am sure that children, teachers and families have appreciated the knowledge that they have been able to share.
The point that Kanwal made and to which I referred at the outset of this piece is important. We need to establish effective partnerships whereby expertise can be shared and nurtured for the benefits of all children and all teachers. Special educators can certainly take a lead in these partnerships but a realignment of their purpose may well be required. Can we not develop the kind of partnership that is focused upon increasing the general level of expertise in all teachers, whilst accepting that some will become leaders in their area and that this may well be in the field of special education?
Primary schools in England have subject co-ordinators whereby a teacher will take the lead for mathematics or science or English for example. My wife happens to be the co-ordinator for art in her school. However, everyone in the school teaches art, mathematics, English and science. It would, quite rightly, be seen as unacceptable if my wife stated that she as the art co-ordinator did not need any expertise in teaching English or mathematics. She certainly needs to have a level of competence and confidence that enables her to teach these subjects appropriately at a level suitable to her class. This model does not yet exist in terms of the role of the special educational needs co-ordinator, who often is seen as a trouble shooter responsible for sorting out the needs of their colleagues.
Kanwal is right. We need to develop a model whereby every teacher has a level of competence and confidence in teaching children with diverse needs in their classrooms. The expertise of the special educator may well be most effectively deployed in leading such school partnerships to enable this to happen.