I visited a school today to observe a student teacher on teaching practice working with a class of children with special educational needs. Jennifer is in her second year of training as an early-years teacher and has opted to do this placement in a local special school. This is a bold decision for a young lady whose limited experience to date has all been in mainstream settings.
The children attending the special school where Jennifer is currently based have a range of learning difficulties and in some instances additional social, emotional and behavioural issues. In an ideal situation these pupils would be in mainstream schools, and the fact that they are receiving their education in segregated provision is more of an indicator of the lack of readiness of the mainstream to accept them than an indictment of those teachers who are currently committed to them in the special school. Students training to be teachers through the university are given the option of such a placement, most decline and those who take up this offer often do so with some apprehension.
I observed Jennifer working with her class today for about forty five minutes. She was well organised and prepared, made good use of available resources for teaching her English lesson and managed the two teaching assistants in her class effectively. Jennifer had clearly established a strong rapport with the children in her class and they gave every indication that they were enjoying the lesson. Knowledge of the needs of each individual in her class was an obvious strength of Jennifer’s teaching, but above all I was impressed by her expectations that all of the class would succeed and her calm and friendly approach to each individual.
Jennifer has taken the opportunity to learn as much as she can about the needs of every child in her class, but what was most reassuring to me was the fact that she regarded each individual as having the potential to learn, just as she would have done in a mainstream class. Whilst these children are attending a special school she is determined that they will all be fully included in learning. It may be argued that these children are not being included in the sense that most would understand the term, but they were certainly all engaged in the excellent activities that Jennifer had planned and were able to articulate their learning successes very well.
We need to think about situations such as that witnessed in Jennifer’s class today with some care. Certainly I believe that in an ideal situation these children would be located within mainstream classrooms. However, inclusion is not simply a case of location and I would contend that I have seen some pupils in mainstream schools who have not had good access to learning and are simply placed within a class. What Jennifer demonstrated to me today was that she had an inclusive attitude, based upon a determination that all children in her class would be challenged and would have an opportunity to learn. I believe that wherever she ends up teaching her pupils will benefit from this inclusive approach.
I am optimistic that as more student teachers like Jennifer have opportunities to work with children who are perceived to challenge the mainstream environment, so will they recognise that all children can learn and that their skills as teachers hold good whatever the situation. I feel confident that in the future, when confronted by children who may be perceived to be problematic because of their learning or behavioural difficulties, Jennifer will remember the work she has been doing with this class in recent weeks and feel ready to meet the challenge. Hopefully this means that children such as those in her current class will have greater opportunities to become effective learners in the future.
So thank you Jennifer for the privilege of watching you teach today, and good luck for what I am sure will be a successful teaching career.