The following perspective was shared with me by our school's inclusion facilitator recently...
"Inclusion is an attitude and a value system that promotes the basic right of all students to receive appropriate and quality educational programming and services in the company of their peers"(Guetzole).Inclusive schools embrace the notions that all children belong, and that all children will learn if their educational needs are met. Notably absent from this definition is any mention of children with disabilities or special education. Inclusion is not a special education issue. It is about developing supportive schools and fostering high achievement for all staff and all students.
As former special education teachers, the two of us were having a discussion about inclusion, and how the terminology special education student doesn't really fit the bill anymore as a result of a welcome philosophical shift toward inclusion within the education system. Our school is fully inclusive. We don't offer any segregated or congregated programming at Glendale Sciences and Technology School... and we're (staff and students) doing just fine. My colleague and I were wondering out loud if we should just strike the term special education from our school's common language vocabulary. In the end, we agreed we should.
We agreed because our school is fashioning itself as one described above... one where all children belong and where all children will learn if their educational needs are met. We intend Glendale to be a supportive school that fosters high achievement for all staff and all students. We believe implicitly that all students do have a fundamental right to receive appropriate and quality educational programming and services in the company of their peers from caring and empathetic teachers and paraprofessionals within the school. We also believe that all staff have a fundamental right to receive appropriate and quality educational support and professional learning services in the company of (and perhaps from) their caring and empathetic peers. This is how we think the collaborative process is optimized.
This is the essence of our Empathy Reboot Project. We are using this project to illuminate the imperative to be inclusive, and as a conduit to leverage empathy as our vessel toward a truly inclusive school. We know that success is measured in innumerable ways, and that by careful application of a strengths-based focus for all students and staff, we will be able to perceive success where formerly it may have eluded us. We understand that "normal is just a setting on the clothes dryer," and strive to value the contribution to learning that every single child and adult makes within our school. Our school does not equate kids or adults with the tabula rasa (blank slate) metaphor that preschool kids are often attached with, and rather think of each other as numerosus rasa... child and adult learners as abundant slates. We think of every member of our school community as a learner with infinite potential to acquire skills and knowledge. This is how we as teachers model never-ending learning, allowing us to teach knowledge, skills and attitudes more effectively from a place of confidence as opposed to anxiety.
We believe an inclusive school culture is one where all feel welcome and respected. It starts from the premise that everyone in our school... students, educators, adminstrators, support staff and parents... should feel they belong, realize their potential and contribute to the life of the school. In our inclusive school culture, diverse experiences and perspectives are seen as gifts to enrich the school community.
An inclusive school culture is one where diversity is embraced, learning supports are available and properly utilized, and flexible learning experiences focus on the individual student. There is an innovative and creative environment and a collaborative approach is taken. At the heart of inclusion is committed leadership and a shared direction... every member of our inclusive school culture is viewed as a potential leader; staff, students and parents alike.
In our school diversity is a feature, not a bug. We acknowledge and celebrate differences as we divine characteristics that define us as a uniquely individual members of the school family. Twisting our cultural lens a bit focuses awareness of how self-identity is influenced by our perception of others, the world and everything within it. Culture is what we believe. The circumstances that surround every single conversation about culture are a sum total of the perceptions of those participating. If we are to peacefully and hopefully engage each other, we have to try to understand and empathize with each others cultural perceptions.
The cultural perspective we all hold is shaped by our experiences as influenced by our birthplace, our family, our spirituality and the zeitgeist within which we were born; it’s the cultural reality lens we look through. Our cultural identity is learned beginning the moment we’re born. Obvious physical characteristics and genetic traits define our culture in part from the second we’re conceived. After we’re born, the evolving cultural identity we form is largely influenced by our relationships and surroundings. Steve Van Bockern, coauthor of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future” refers to this identity as our cultural tail. I had the pleasure of attending a retreat with Steve on the Morley Indian Reservation west of Calgary in 2002. He explained that we can’t cut off our cultural tail; it’s always there, behind us affecting our perspective, but also that great things are possible in everyone’s future despite this tail that follows us.
Whether good, bad or indifferent, our cultural tail tells the story of where we’ve come from; who we are in terms of how our environments affect us, but it doesn’t have to predict where we’re headed. From a cultural perspective, in many ways we begin our lives rather innocently. Like clay to the sculptor, we start as unformed material yearning to be molded and shaped into a more tangible form; our growing cultural identity. Just as soon as we see the light of the world we begin forming perceptions and feelings about our culture and how we are different from, or similar to others. We are the sum total of what we think we are. Adults at Glendale strive to be responsible about noticing the cultural perspectives of children so we can help them form positive perceptions about their personal identities. We also need to do this with each other enabling all of us to confidently build relationships and circles of support as we share our perspectives with each other.
Ultimately these evolving personal identities define us as important and valued members of our school culture. We all have a story... we strive to learn everyone's story at Glendale. Our stories are what define us... we don't need any special labels to help us do this.