I’m not good at committees. Well, perhaps I should rephrase that. I’ve become increasingly intolerant of meetings where a group of people sit around discussing undoubtedly important matters, complaining about problems but lacking any creativity or innovative thinking that might bring about change. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find these days that the same well-rehearsed issues keep cropping up and receive the same hand wringing responses that I heard ten years ago. Let me give you an example and in so doing attempt to move forward on the issues of labelling that I have presented, and others have kindly responded to over recent days.
I was recently in a meeting with a group of well-respected colleagues, many of whom I have worked with for several years. The focus of the discussion was on future post-graduate course development, the recruitment of teachers on to these courses and the allocation of tutors. The conversation arrived at a point where the need to update a long established course aimed at teaching children with learning difficulties was being debated. At this point I made a suggestion that I didn’t think too radical, but which certainly left me as a minority (of one) in the meeting. Rather than advertising a course for teachers to address children’s learning difficulties, why not turn this on its head and promote a course about helping to overcome teachers’ teaching difficulties?
After the chair of the meeting picked himself up off the floor and others had ceased their performances of eyebrow gymnastics signalling their disbelief in my naivety, I felt the need to qualify my comments. “I don’t see that the problem is with the learner, but rather with the teacher”, I began. “I am not blaming teachers for the difficulties that some pupils experience in learning, but rather feel that if we can help teachers to investigate the ways in which they teach we may have greater impact on the quality of teaching and learning.” Various members of the committee re-assured me that they felt I still had much to contribute to the debate, but that there was a need to respond to “market demands”, which indicates that teachers still want courses to help them teach children with behaviour difficulties, learning difficulties and reading difficulties associated with a whole host of diagnosed conditions. Besides which, if we start telling teachers that it is them that have the problems, not the children, won’t they be offended? I know my place and rather than causing apoplexy amongst my colleagues returned to my corner of the meeting.
I remember a few years ago visiting a special school for children who had been excluded from mainstream schools and were designated as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Over lunch with a group of teenage boys we started talking about why they were at this school and what they felt about this. One of the lads said to me, “they sent me here because the teachers at my last school said I have behaviour difficulties. But let me tell you mister, I don’t have any difficulties with my behaviour, it’s the teachers that have problems. If anyone has difficulties it’s them, I don’t have a problem with the way I am.” Maybe he had a point, I thought. Where does the problem lie?
I don’t think it is helpful to blame anyone for this situation. Teachers in my experience work hard and show tremendous commitment to the pupils in their classes. I also understand that if pupils are allocated a label, such as social, emotional and behavioural difficulty, or dyslexia, then this may result in the allocation of additional classroom resources that could be of benefit to both the teacher and the learner. This is the very reason why teachers and parents seek assessments that will provide them with a diagnosis. However, I am quite serious in my suggestion that often the problem is not one of learning difficulty, but rather the issue lies in a teaching difficulty.
In recent years I have tried whenever possible in my work with teachers on post-graduate courses to encourage them to investigate their own approaches to teaching. In so doing they look at their classroom practice and identify those things that generally go well and others with which they may feel less comfortable. This often leads them to identify individual pupils who they find challenging and present them with difficulties in their classrooms. Sometimes these pupils will have been formally assessed and have a label of some kind. If that is the case, then fine, we can work with that in our sessions. What I do find is that those teachers who are open to investigating their own practice may do so by focusing upon this specific individual, but will usually find that the approaches they develop on the course and adopt for this one child are equally applicable and beneficial for others. The whole idea is to change what can be changed and recognise that there are some factors that will not go away and need to be accepted. For example, if a child has Down syndrome, a perfectly valid and undisputable diagnosis based upon genetic facts, we as teachers know that we cannot “cure” this condition, neither should we try. Let’s accept the child as an individual and challenge ourselves to understand how he might be taught. If the child has difficulties with learning, surely we can examine our own practices in order to see how we can make life and learning easier for both the child and the teacher.
If teachers can address their teaching difficulties, they are likely to have an impact not only on individuals, but on whole classes. The approaches that have been developed by experts in the field of dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, sensory impairment and a whole host of others, in many instances have sound foundations. I contend that these should become embedded skills that all teachers develop in order to overcome their teaching difficulties. If we can apply these skills and this understanding beyond the child with the label, then we will have provided our teachers with an essential resource with wide ranging advantages. Surely this would be more effective than simply chasing after resources for each individual that comes along with a label and who challenges our current system.
We could even be quite radical and call this “inclusive teaching” and begin to understand a little more about what we mean when we use the term “inclusive education”. Perhaps it is just my own teaching difficulties that prevents me from influencing colleagues on committees – I really must stop blaming them and look at my own practice!