Life has been busy over here on the other side of the world. I’ve been visiting schools and meeting with educators, we’ve had visitors from the States, and we’ve been to Queenstown and back. As usual, I’ve enjoyed every second of it.
During my time here, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some inspiring leaders about how they build inclusive and tight knit communities around their schools. I’ve witnessed hands-on approaches to student-centered learning, and I’ve have attended university classes and professional development courses. There have been many things that have made an impression on me, some I can put into words, others I can’t yet.
One of my favorite people to speak to has been a principal at a primary school here in Wellington. His school was an inclusive school before there was a word for being so. As he told it to me, he just never saw a reason not to be. What you need to realize, is that 15-20 years ago, it was common practice for neighborhood schools to turn away students with special needs. Instead, their parents would be forced to enroll them in a special school. So, the fact that his school began enrolling these kids, long before the Ministry of Education even supported it, is a big deal.
The first special needs student they enrolled was a nonverbal Somalian refugee on the autism spectrum. The boy exhibited frequent aggressive behaviors. None of the teachers were willing to work with him, and who can blame them? They had no training in handling these behaviors and the child was unsafe. So, this principal took the child on himself. There was one TA who was willing to assist. Together, they created a self-contained classroom and began working with the boy. They sought out professional development to learn strategies for working with students with autism. Within the first year, the aggressive behaviors had decreased, and they were safely able to bring other children into the self-contained classroom. Eighteen months after the boy enrolled, he was able to be included in a general education classroom with support.
What I love about this anecdote is not only the unwavering devotion to educating even the most difficult students, but the leadership this principal exhibited. His school was presented with a challenge that they were, seemingly, not equipped to handle. He could have assigned a teacher to take it on and set the expectation that he/she grow as an educator to meet this student’s needs. However, he realized that this was not the way to get buy in. So, he took it on himself. He TAUGHT his teachers. He learned how to educate students on the autism spectrum and then he MODELED it for his teachers. Then, he GUIDED them as they began implementing these new strategies. Too often, teacher professional development doesn’t follow education best practices. In this case, it did.
He also set the tone for being an inclusive school. He set an expectation for the teachers, the students, and the community. He showed that his school was accepting of all and committed to educating all students. In short, he led by example.
Another inspiring educator I’ve had the privilege of meeting is a Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) in the Otago region. If you remember from my last post, SENCOs case manage all the special need students within their school. You also may remember that support is not streamlined, and SENCOs must apply for funding to receive support for individual students for specific areas of need. Like most, this SENCO was frustrated by the system. However, she chose to find creative and collaborative solutions to work within the system.
Some services are either unavailable through the school system, hard to qualify for, or difficult to come by in rural regions such as Otago. So, this SENCO went out and built relationships with local, private, agencies. She told me of at least three organizations she had partnerships with who would provide free services, such as counseling, to any student she referred. They also provided free wrap-around services in the form of counseling for family members.
This SENCO also organized a region-wide collaborative group for SENCOs. She recognized that the system was confusing and hard to navigate. One needs to know who to ask for funding, how to submit the right proof to qualify for funding, how to complete paperwork, how to support students, teachers, parents, etc. With only one SENCO per school, there is not always someone to look to for help. So, she reached out to all the principals and SENCOs in her region. She convinced the principals to all give their SENCOs one day per term to collaborate. After a year or two of this, they also began visiting each other’s schools in order to observe and learn from each other.
I loved my conversation with this SENCO because she isn’t one to complain, she is one to take action. Sure, she harbors frustrations with the education system, but she is always trying to figure out ways to make the system work, to get the students what they need. In addition to the SENCO group, she led several teams throughout her school. She shared with me some structures for running collaborative teams that had me giddy. To teachers, collaborative team meetings either feel like a blessing, or a curse. This is largely driven by how they are run.
Amidst the excitement of school visits and professional development opportunities, Elijah and I also had some visitors. First, my parents came to visit! They spent 4 days in Wellington before heading to the South Island. We took them to some of our favorite places, such as The Mt. Vic Chippery, where I regularly partake in gluten free fish and chips and curly fries. We hiked up Mt. Victoria, and visited Zealandia, a local ecosanctuary for native birds.
Next, we flew to Queenstown and met up with my parents and Elijah’s parents. So many parents! We stayed in Cromwell where Elijah and his dad were participating in a race. We rented a cute house where we could all stay together. After two nights, my parents flew back to the states, and we had another night with just Elijah’s parents. Elijah’s parents then flew up north but will be visiting us in Wellington this upcoming week.
As mentioned above, Elijah and I flew to Queenstown where we saw both sets of parents. However, after the adults left, Elijah and I stayed to finish out the week. I conducted school visits, we visited some wineries, ate delicious food, and visited Onsen Hot Pools. As is New Zealand’s way, it was beautiful.
Now we are back in Wellington and have a busy week ahead. I have more school visits planned, Elijah’s parents come, and now that I finally have ethics approval, I can begin my formal interviews! I already have ideas rolling around in my head for how I can use what I’ve learned back in the states, and I can’t wait to have more as I encounter more inspiring people and interesting places.