Working with teachers in their own environment has a very different feel from that experienced when running courses at the university or on neutral territory. Being familiar with the surroundings and comfortable with each other, often means that those tentative minutes of beginning a training session are dispensed with, and teachers quickly become relaxed. Thus was the situation at Vydehi school today in the Whitefields district of Bangalore where I had been invited to conduct a session by Anita, one of our MA students here in the city. However, an interesting dimension of today’s training was that it brought together teachers from a special school alongside those from mainstream with a specific focus on creating an inclusive learning environment. This situation raised a number of questions in my mind about the expectations that teachers from these two respective establishments might have, and the ways in which they might interpret inclusive schooling. Would the special school teachers feel that they had a monopoly of expertise in respect of children with special educational needs? Would the mainstream teachers see these children as a problem? The session was approached by examining a model of assessment and planning to create opportunities for children to learn together in one classroom. Examples were presented from schools where these approaches had succeeded, and discussions of pupil “deficits” avoided. My idea was to provide examples that could encourage and enable children of all needs and abilities to learn within the same lessons. An emphasis was placed upon the proposition that within the same lesson children could be given many learning opportunities, and they do not in fact all need to learn the same thing, or work at the same pace.
It is always interesting trying to gauge the reaction of a group when addressing what I know to be, for many teachers, a series of challenging concepts. Nodding heads and smiles are always a good sign, furrowed brows and folded arms can be slightly worrying, a firm shaking of heads and reddening faces are disturbing to say the least. I recall one occasion when an audience member sitting immediately in front of me, at the outset of a session opened to its full width a broadsheet newspaper, thus concealing himself from me, and vice versa. This all before I had uttered a word. I must confess that this rather pointed protest made me smile at the time, and I believe I saw the man behind the newsprint as ripe for conversion. Many of his surrounding colleagues objected to his behaviour, forcing him to lower his newspaper. In a way I was disappointed, having calculated that he would be unable to maintain his pose for more than a few minutes before his arms tired and he was forced to retreat. Fortunately today, there were far more smiles and nodding heads than otherwise, and nobody undertook any form of protest. Most reassuring was that teachers from both the mainstream and special schools appeared to be in accord with the principles that I was merrily espousing.
Towards the end of the session I became slightly concerned that they had all reached saturation point in respect of the information received and the ideas discussed. However, Anita suggested one final activity to end the event, and I was happy to comply. Teachers from both schools worked together in groups to plan a lesson in one of the formats presented during the session. They were asked to demonstrate how they might ensure that the needs of children from both of their schools could be incorporated into the lesson and their needs met. I was not surprised to find that these professionals rose to this challenge admirably and that they soon settled into devising differentiated approaches, and the implementation of resources that would support inclusive learning. When they presented back their ideas it was clear that they had identified a means of planning whereby all children could work together in an environment of mutual respect and understanding.
Whilst the teachers in today’s session are used to working in very different situations, it was evident that they have far more in common than they do differences. It became clear during the morning that these enthusiastic teachers also recognised that this was equally true of the children with whom they work.