“God save us from people who mean well.”
Vikram Seth – A Suitable Boy
On Friday afternoon wandering across the foyer of the library at the university I chanced to meet Sandra. Those of you who have been regular readers of this blog may recall Sandra, she is the student teacher who came to see me to ask what she should do about Kevin, a boy in her class on teaching practice who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. (Those who may not be a regular reader can find out about our meeting on the blog entry for 3rd February). During my initial meeting with Sandra I had emphasised that she needed to look at his learning strengths rather than the deficit label that had been applied to him. On seeing me coming across the area Sandra got up from her seat and greeted me.
Sandra: Hello, Professor Rose
RR: Hello Sandra, how are you? I told you to call me Richard.
Sandra: I’m fine thanks. You remembered my name.
RR: Yes, you are on placement at XXXX school and have Kevin in your class. How’s it going?
Sandra: Really good. You were right; Kevin isn’t a problem at all. He’s a really nice boy and he’s working fine.
RR: Good, I’m glad to hear it.
Sandra: Yes. I found out he loves tennis, so I’ve developed a lot of teaching materials around tennis. And you were right, lots of the other kids are using the materials too and it’s working really well.
RR: Well done Sandra, that’s excellent. I’m really pleased to hear that it’s going so well.
Sandra: No, Kevin’s not a problem. He’s absolutely fine. It’s the teachers that are the problem.
A few alarm bells started going off in my mind at this point!
RR: Oh Yes?
Sandra: Yes. Whenever they mention Kevin all they talk about is his autism and his problems. They don’t see the real Kevin. I don’t think they really want to see him. They say that he would be better in another school with teachers who are trained to teach him.
RR: Well, maybe they haven’t had a chance to think about Kevin in the way that you have. Perhaps they will think better of him when they have had the opportunity to work with him for a while like you have.
Sandra: Oh no, that’s not it. Some of the teachers have had him in their class for a whole year and they still think he is a problem.
Those alarm bells are getting louder. I need to be careful what I say in order not to be seen as critical of a school with which the university has a working relationship
Sandra: I told them what you said, that they must look at Kevin as an individual, not at the autism label he’s been given. I told them that was how I was working with him.
RR: And what did they say about that?
Sandra: They said that it was all very well for people to sit in their universities and pontificate about an ideal world. That you don’t have to teach him every day.
RR: Well they do have a point there. Though I don’t think the issue is simply one about me and working in a university. I think there are a lot of teachers doing very well with children like Kevin by emphasising the positive aspects of his learning.
Those bells have become deafening!
Sandra: That’s more or less what I said. I told them that you had been a teacher for donkey’s years and a head teacher, and that you’d taught hundreds of children like Kevin!
Donkey’s years? – hundreds of Kevins? The cacophony of bells is worsening!!
RR: I see, and what did they say?
Sandra: Not a lot. So I suggested they should invite you to a staff meeting to talk to them the way you did with me, and explain that Kevin is not the problem, that they are the problem.
RR: You said that? I don’t remember ever suggesting that the teachers were the problem. This is far more about the stereotyping of children and the dangers of seeing labels rather than learners.
Sandra: Yes I know.
RR: And what did they say about the staff meeting?
Sandra: Oh, I don’t think they will bother. They don’t see that it’s an issue worth discussing. But if they did ask, would you come?
RR: Of course I would. I’d be pleased to meet with the teachers and discuss my views on the effects of labelling children, and I’m sure it would help me to understand their perspectives too.
Sandra: Great I’ll tell them next week when I’m back in school.
RR: Jolly good. But Sandra, do choose the language you use carefully. Just as we should not lower our expectations of Kevin by seeing only his label of autism spectrum disorder, neither should we blame teachers if they are apprehensive about meeting his needs.
Sandra: Right, I see. I’ll get back to you then. Bye.
RR: Bye Sandra.
THE BELLS! THE BELLS!