This summer/fall I’m taking an additional qualifications course through the Ontario Principals Council titled “Special Education for Administrators”. As a preassignment, the course instructor, herself an experienced administrator in our district, has asked us to reflect on the following statement:
“All Children Can Learn”
She has asked us to frame our thoughts with the following questions in mind, as they pertain to special education:
- What does that statement say to you?
- How do you demonstrate that you believe this statement for students with special needs?
- What concrete/specific actions have you taken thus far?
- Do teachers believe it? How do teachers demonstrate this belief in your school?
This was difficult for me. My first response was, “Well, duh!” but that doesn’t fill the required two pages. But when I started to dig behind those four words, I realized there is so much that speaks to my whole philosophy of teaching, leading and learning; so much that I found it overwhelming. I went to my Tweeps for feedback with the hashtag #allchildrencanlearn and I thank those that took the time to respond or retweet. I’d like to keep the Twitter discussion going, but after several days of thinking and brainstorming, I came up with a reflection piece that I think encapsulates what the instructor wants us to think about. I thought I would share my reflection below:
Personal Reflection: All Children Can Learn
Special Education for Administrators, OPC
“Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way.”
— George Evans
All children can learn.
However, I feel that there are some inherent issues within that statement that can be misleading. First is to address what it means to learn in general. Is it simply meeting expectations written in a document? Is it coming away with new facts that one didn’t know before? Is it being able to ask questions or critically analyze information? Is it the ability to be innovative or creative? What does that mean? Does a grade of A or B mean a student has learned something? The statement in itself begs many questions about learning in general.
Second, this statement can also be misleading if you take into account that at all levels (school, district and provincial), there is a heavy reliance on “final grades” and standardized testing that gives way to an assumption that all children learn the same way. To be certain, we are moving away from this assumption, but it remains an uphill battle in many ways.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that learning, on its surface, means meeting the expectations in the curriculum. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe that every student can learn (i.e., meet expectations). As a teacher, I show this through my use of differentiation in tasks and assessments based on interests, abilities and readiness levels. I recognize that all students progress along an individual path of growth and learning but at different paces (note that I did not use the word continuum as it implies a straight line, which to me learning is not, but that’s for another day). I plan intentionally with all my students in mind and all the resources I have available so that every student can demonstrate their knowledge in the way that utilizes their strengths and fills up the gaps. I hold students to high expectations, and support the students to get them there. I co-teach with colleagues so that there is time to work towards precise learning goals with small groups of students.
As an administrator I try to build and sustain a culture among staff that encapsulates this belief. I strive to create the conditions necessary for these beliefs to be met, through giving staff time in the form of school-based professional development, whether it’s at staff meetings, or release time during the instructional day where teachers can meet to plan, moderate student work, co-plan/write IEP’s, etc. It’s not enough, and to be honest, I am still running through my head what I have done and what I can do to better walk this talk.
But does my staff really believe this statement? I’m hesitant to say yes. When I reflect on some of the conversations I have had with some of my staff or that I’ve overheard in the staff room, it’s apparent that there is still a lot “victim-blaming” going on. When staff are expressing their frustrations at why students aren’t meeting expectations (theirs or curriculum – they are often mutually exclusive), the conversation among some shift to what it is about the student that is preventing them from “being good students”. They’re lazy, they’re irresponsible, they’re unfocused, and/or they just don’t care. I rarely hear “Perhaps the task wasn’t engaging enough, or, perhaps I didn’t allow for certain students to access the task in a way that best suits them, or, perhaps I need to expand my definition of differentiation beyond that-small-group-the-spec-ed-teacher-works-with”, or anything that does not involve a diatribe of all that is wrong with so-and-so, or that so-and-so is limited in what they can do because of an identification of an exceptionality. So I guess my answer to the question at the opening of the paragraph is: not really, not yet. And the not yet part is where I, as an administrator, come in because gone are the days where it is acceptable or natural for educators to blame the student for not achieving or not doing well according to a set of homogeneous standards (i.e., curriculum). It is our duty and responsibility as educators to take every child in our care and support them in any way that, in the words of a colleague, “allows them to shine”.
Through this course I hope to refine my goals as an administrator when it comes to supporting all the students in my care, especially our most vulnerable students. My site has two systems (special education) classes – one for students with learning disabilities, and another for students with behaviour issues, as well as the myriad of students who are in the mainstream classes with special needs, from learning disabilities, toASD, to anxiety disorders and mild intellectual delays.
Some of my goals are:
- to be more purposeful in the questions I ask of teachers when it comes to the achievement of all students, especially students with special needs. If there is victim-blaming, what kinds of questions can I ask that support self-reflection among my staff when it comes to the students with special needs in their classes?
- to reflect and explore what concrete strategies/actions I can take to support my staff so that they are supporting their exceptional students in ways that best meet their needs
- to reach out beyond my school and invite other support agencies in as an additional resource to my staff and my parent community
- embed this philosophy into our School Improvement Plan for Student Achievement through the use instructional strategies, assessment strategies and look-fors that best support all our learners
- to take a more appreciative stance when reflecting on the staff in my building so that we can build together on what we do well and address what needs changing
Ultimately, as an administrator, I will strive to work with my staff and my parent community to explore some of the more abstract and bigger issues that are at hand; namely to redefine what we believe to be learning; to really ask ourselves what we are saying through the way we assess and evaluate students with special needs and students in general, and to reflect on the goals we set for our students with special needs so that we push ourselves beyond seeing achievement as being tied to meeting a list of expectations.
So that’s my first crack at it. As I let it sit for a few hours, or until tomorrow, I may revise it. As my valued PLN, I welcome your feedback.