Mary’s learning is making a difference


Mary Feng Yan, a lifelong learner and leader in inclusive education in China

Mary Feng Yan, a lifelong learner and leader in inclusive education in China

A few hour ago I arrived in Beijing. I have been to China a few times in the past, but this is my first visit to the capital city. Sadly I will only be here for twenty four hours before moving on to Ürümqi with my colleague Professor Meng Deng to attend a conference and work with teachers, so I am likely to see nothing more of Beijing than the airport, a hotel and a university meeting room.

On previous journeys to China I have been in the company of a former PhD student Mary Feng Yan, but for a very good reason Mary is unable to be here this time. Whilst I am in China, Mary is attending a UNESCO meeting in Brussels with researchers, administrators and other officials working in the field of inclusive education. Having been selected to be the Chinese representative at this meeting I know she will make a very fine contribution to the deliberations there in Belgium.

My thoughts turned to Mary during the long flight from Birmingham to Beijing, as I reflected upon the comments made by the teacher about her perceived lack of need for further professional development discussed on this blog yesterday. Mary was the complete antithesis of this teacher and continues to have a hunger for learning that is truly professional. It is true to say that when she arrived in Northampton, initially to study on the MA programme, Mary had never heard the term inclusive education. Within a very short time she had read several of the key texts in this area and was beginning to question everything about the education systems with which she was familiar. Her appetite for learning was immense and led her to engage with a number of research projects, to attend conferences and seminars and develop her own views of inclusive schooling.

Following successful completion of the MA, Mary continued her studies and undertook research into inclusive education within a Chinese context. Specifically she examined issues of teacher motivation in respect of working with children with special educational needs and disabilities. As I had come to expect from her, Mary worked hard, and being a perfectionist gave a hundred per cent commitment to her research and writing. As a consequence of these professional endeavours Mary sailed through her viva voce, examined by Professor Roger Slee an internationally respected leader in this field and returned to China to make full use of her new doctoral status and armed with a wealth of learning. Furthermore, shortly after the viva, Roger Slee asked Mary to write a book based upon her research in a series that he was editing. This was an accolade indeed.

Mary is regularly in touch with me and is now participating in a major research project in China with my colleague Professor Philip Garner. She has faced many challenges in convincing all of her colleagues of the contribution of more inclusive teaching approaches in schools, though the importance of her work continues to be recognised internationally, hence the invitation to Brussels. As with all teachers and their students, I am immensely proud of her achievements and watch her developing career with great interest. I know that she continues to ask critical questions and to challenge her own learning and thereby maintains a commitment to her own professional development as well as that which she delivers for the benefit of others.

During the next few days here in China I will be using some of Mary’s research to demonstrate her critical thinking in respect of the development of inclusion here. At the same time colleagues in Belgium will be interested to hear about her work there. Mary’s influence may grow more quickly outside of China than within her home country, but then we are all familiar with the challenges faced by prophets in their own land.