“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.”
I had many interesting conversations with our Indian students from the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course that we run in Bangalore at various social events over the weekend. Whilst most of these were light hearted in tone, one colleague was particularly keen to discuss an issue that seems to trouble teachers in many parts of the world. The implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act in India, she suggested has added much to the stresses upon specialist teachers. “Everybody looks to us to tell them what to do”, she said. “They see that we are the experts and therefore it is our responsibility to deal with all the problems. They do not see this as a shared concern”.
This, I tried to reassure her, is not a situation unique to India. In my experience mainstream classroom teachers everywhere I go express anxieties about children described as having special educational needs, and sometimes feel helpless in their efforts to find effective ways of enabling them to learn. Where legislation is put in place, there is a need for those with the skills, knowledge and understanding to take a lead in ensuring that the requirements are addressed. At such times it seems only natural to me that colleagues who are uncertain about meeting new challenges will seek the support of those who have shown a commitment and possibly developed additional expertise in supporting children who have difficulties with learning.
I have expressed concerns about the notion of “expertism” on several previous occasions, but feel that there is an aspect of this situation that is an indication of our status as professionals. Quite rightly we should expect all teachers to accept responsibility for all children in their classes. It is unacceptable that there are teachers who are prepared to abdicate this responsibility and hand over children to be dealt with by an “expert”. However, it seems equally wrong that those who have made a commitment to obtain additional professional development and qualifications in the field of special and inclusive education, adopt a critical or even negative stance towards those who have not done so. Having sought to acquire expertise, knowledge and skills in relation to teaching children who have traditionally been marginalised, and in some cases excluded from education, surely we have a responsibility to accept a leadership role in supporting those teachers and others who lack confidence in this area.
I remember when I was training to be a teacher, one of my tutors, Ken Jones, who subsequently became a good friend, told us that every teacher on entering the profession must accept that they have a critical leadership role to play. He went further in saying that this role should extend beyond the classroom, to the communities in which we lived and worked. This concept sits readily with the idea of teaching as a vocation and of a commitment of service to others. However, it is not always easily achieved.
So here perhaps we have a conundrum. Whilst we want all teachers to accept their responsibility towards all children, we need to accept that many will look to those who have specific expertise to provide guidance and leadership. So perhaps the message I should be giving to my colleague who is a student on the MA programme, is that she will have to appreciate that others will look to her to give a lead, but that in doing so she will need to share her expertise, until gradually her fellow teachers gain in confidence and take on more responsibility for themselves. This will only happen when the expertise that we have is shared and we do not feel precious about keeping it to ourselves. If every teacher is to become an expert then some must assume the role of mentor in order to ensure that this can be achieved. “I have worked hard to gain this new learning,” said our student. “If others want to develop such expertise they should join the course”. Part of me sympathises with this argument, and yes, we would love to see more teachers signing up for the programme, but the responsibility to support those who either cannot, or will not attend such courses must lie with those who have been afforded the opportunity.
Our current visitors from India have certainly developed a broad range of knowledge and understanding. and are skilled in applying this in their own classrooms. The greatest challenge ahead is in ensuring that this expertise is shared widely for the benefit of greater numbers of teachers and children.