Excuse me sir, do you have teaching difficulties?


Another unimaginative committee making no impact upon progress towards inclusive teaching approaches!

Another unimaginative committee making no impact upon progress towards inclusive teaching approaches!

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!


8 thoughts on “Excuse me sir, do you have teaching difficulties?

  1. Dear Richard,
    Reading today’s post reminds me of the first time I heard the term ‘teaching disability’. I was at the International Reading Association conference a couple of years ago. Dr. Richard Allingham gave his keynote speech and remarked that he is very unpopular with ‘special’ educators as he believes that children struggle not because of a learning disability but because of teaching disabilities in teachers. I began to see the truth in that statement and continue to do so. Schools will be such better places if all teachers examine their own practices and teach children not subjects.

  2. Hi Bharati,
    In using the term teaching difficulty it is important not to see this as apportioning blame. Many teachers have difficulties in meeting the needs of children when these pupils do not perceive themselves as being difficult. There is no shame in admitting that we find something difficult to do. It is simply disappointing when we don’t try to do something about it.

  3. I really like this. Yes, teaching difficulties is what it is. While I agree with Richard when he says that it is fine to admit that we find something difficult to do. But, what is it that we are doing to overcome this difficulty. When we find it difficult to read or see due to poor eyesight, we correct this difficulty by wearing spectacles, when we are not able to walk after a fall, we help ourselves by using a stick or a crutch. Now I have seen and heard of many schools and teachers who say I find dealing with children with special needs difficult or I’m not equipped. Who is topping you from getting equipped? I know the MA prgramme needs students and I have seen and experienced the counseling dept. at Spastics trying to convert every enquiry into a student for their training programme. So what is really stopping one from getting equipped? I truly believe it is the need that determines the attitude. As I have always said, the same person will leave no stone unturned to work things out if his/ her own child was having the difficulty. Also Richard, I am in complete agreement with your thoughts in the first paragraph of your post. We need to act and work towards change rather than just blaming and discussing.

  4. Hi Savitha
    As always you make some interesting comments. Training is certainly essential, but I feel we need to make sure that the training we provide gives positive messages rather than perpetuating deficit models. As you know, on the MA course we have adopted an approach that emphasises enquiry based learning examining personal professional practice, the development of the learning environment, building effective partnerships and planning for learning success. I appreciate that for some teachers this is a challenging approach and one quite different from their previous experiences. But we will persist because, like you, I believe that we have amazingly talented teachers who with the right support can make inclusion work for so many children who have so far been marginalised.

  5. Hi Richard, this post of yours got me reflecting about why the idea of enrolling on a course that had the words “teaching difficulties” in its title, has negative connotations for me too. This is despite my strong belief that as practitioners we have a responsibility to be in a constant state of reflective practice (Donald Schon’s concepts of reflection in- and on-action also come to mind). I wholeheartedly concur that as teachers, it is with us that the onus rests in terms of addressing the needs of differently-abled children. However, to me, the idea of using the term “difficulty” implies almost an attitude of having relinquished the obligation to strive for a solution. I suppose that on a personal level, it is purely a semantic issue, but I feel that if we are always endeavouring to be positive in our language with children, then why not with ourselves too? The word ‘enable’ always helps me!

  6. You make a good case here Saneeya. I can see the point you are making about how the term difficulty might have a negative impact. We tend to avoid difficulties whenever we can. However, teachers seem to have no qualms about using the term “learning difficulty” in relation to some of their pupils and maybe occasionally putting them in the position of experiencing this feeling may have a shock value if nothing else.
    I suspect that teachers would not sign up to a course aimed at addressing teaching difficulties, but I would like to work with those who dare to think in this way.
    Debating these issues – as Donald Schon would I’m sure agree, encourages us to learn.

  7. Forgive me Sirs,

    Is there any real condition called “Teaching Disability”!? Can we call a ‘person’ who cannot teach as a ‘teacher’?

    In fact, this could be better termed as “Teaching Efficiency”.

    It is really surprised to note that few people recently start using “Teaching Disability. Some even say there is no LEARNING DISABILITY but it is TEACHING DISABILITY! (It is something like creating darkness by closing our eyes; I would call it as the impact of “the era of terminologies”).

    It is the ATTITUDE & EFFICIENCY that matters in the teaching learning process. Hence, we need to focus more on the attitude & efficiency of the both teacher & leaner. The attitude & efficiency of the teacher depends upon many things including personal to professional outlooks & experiences.

    As your good self is well aware of that, the teacher who does not have a good attitude towards the learner, subject, and profession cannot succeed and those who see teaching as merely as “a job” cannot influence the learner.

    The ‘teaching profession’ is said to be ‘the profession which create all other professions’. However, the sad part is that it is one of the professions which have got least attraction nowadays. In other words, teaching profession is not attracting the ‘bright group’ of the society, where they choose to be doctors or engineers or other better paid professions!

    We need to identify those with the ‘passion for teaching’. The time has crossed the limit to do something to create more efficient & sufficient educators.

    There must be strict regulations in the ‘education industry’ in every country to maintain its quality. There must be enough orientation and or empowerment programs to attract & create better teachers.

    The systematic foundation of the education of every child starts with pre-primary schooling (early education) which is most neglected. (Here is one of the links which says the importance of early education http://bit.ly/1egeJi5) The quality & qualifications of teachers have no priority or consideration. This trend is very dangerous. As Special (Inclusive) educators we all strive for the slogan “catch them young”. But those children with special needs remain unrecognized or least intervened due to the ignorance.

    Hence, I feel that, we need to work out more on the ‘efficiency of the teacher’ rather than ‘dis-ability’.

    Thanks for your time & consideration.

    Kind regards,

    • Hi Hubbu Rahman,
      This is a very interesting posting providing much for thinking about. I agree with you about the importance of getting attitudes right and the need to gain teaching efficiency. With regards to attracting the best minds into the profession I am not sure about what you say here. I see a lot of creative teaching but they are often struggling in systems that don’t really support them very well. If people are motivated to be in better paid positions and occupations then they may well not see teaching as a vocation in the way that I believe the best teachers do. I certainly agree with your concept of teacher empowerment, something that is often lacking today and which I believe would assist us in making teaching more inclusive. You have given me something to think about here, which is very important as this blog moves forward.

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