Back at the beginning of February, I arrived at the Fulbright New Zealand Office bright-eyed, eager, and a bit nervous to begin this grant. Orientation was exciting and energizing. We were immersed in New Zealand culture and spent two days conversing with other passionate Fulbrighters and Axford Fellows. Leaving orientation, I felt overwhelmed, but ready to jump in. Then I learned about the ethics approval process. Both alumni and the staff at Fulbright told us something akin to, “Yes, the ethics process will be frustrating, but take the time you have while you wait for approval to explore your new home, get to know New Zealand, and learn about the education system, because partway through your grant you will get extremely busy.” Well, they aren’t liars.
A few days after returning from Queenstown, I rented a car and drove the 2 hours up to Palmerston North (read: Elijah drove up to Palmerston North and I slept in the passenger seat.) There, I visited a secondary special education unit. Being a primary school teacher, I always find it beneficial visiting secondary schools. I find it important to reflect on where my students are headed and what I am preparing them for. The teachers I spoke to talked about the difficult transition from primary to secondary school. They found that students who were able to be taught in an inclusive environment in primary school were less successful in that environment in secondary school. Some of the factors they identified as causing this were: transitions between classes, multiple teachers and classrooms, different teaching styles between primary and secondary, and the widening gap between these students and their typically developing peers.
It is this last reason that always strikes me when visiting secondary schools because it inevitably leads to thoughts about transitioning out of school. As a primary school teacher, I worry about my kids and wonder what adulthood will look like for them, but there is still so much hope. There is still so much time. When they leave me, they still have middle school and high school. Who knows how much progress they will make in those seven years? By secondary school, that time has depleted. Secondary school teachers are tasked with realistically thinking about what the future looks like for their students and how to prepare them, and their parents, for life after compulsory education.
Transitioning special needs students out of school is an issue at the forefront of collaboration among stakeholders at the secondary level. It is a complex and somewhat depressing issue that, unfortunately, I don’t have time to cover in my five-month grant. So, although I will welcome invitations to visit secondary schools, I will focus on collaboration at a primary level for my inquiry project. Fortunately for those interested in transition, Dr. Christine Powell is a Fulbright teacher currently in Singapore whose inquiry project focuses on educational programs and pedagogical practices that support students with diverse learning needs in secondary education and transition to college and careers. You can follow her blog here.
After returning to Wellington, I visited a primary school known for its inclusive nature. The principal asked me to observe in classrooms and form my own opinions on the school’s practices. There were two main things that stood out to me. One, the structure of the school and how it was used. It reminded me of my own elementary school which followed the trendy, open-space school structure of the late 20th century, albeit with some partitions (because by the 90’s schools were aware of the obvious noise problems associated with open-space schools). Instead of the cheap cork board partitions my school raised, this school had been thoughtfully planned. Between each classroom was a sliding glass door. When opened, classes could mingle, and teachers could co-teach. The fishbowl classrooms created a sense of school community and were far less isolating than traditional classrooms.
The second thing that stood out to me was that I generally could not identify the students with special needs (excluding those with more visible disabilities such as Downs Syndrome). The classroom environment, work spaces, and teaching styles were differentiated in such a way that EVERY student was receiving what they needed. Each classroom used flexible seating, meaning there were tall tables for students to stand at and work, normal tables with chairs, and bean bags or pillows for students to work on the floor. Most classrooms had one or two desks adorned with familiar supports (e.g. visual schedules, token boards, etc.) which were clearly there to provide more structure for special needs students when needed. Most of the students were working in groups, and they were all engaged and on task. Meanwhile, I saw teachers and teacher aides floating around the classrooms reteaching or enriching as needed. I saw teachers pulling differentiated groups to the carpet to do minilessons while other groups worked at their own level. What I did not see was 25 students sitting at desks doing one thing while 5 students sat with a teacher at a side table. What I did not see was teachers at their desks or on their computers while a teacher aide supported students. I did not see an aide standing in the back of a classroom while a whole group lesson was taught. I saw lessons and learning environments that had been carefully crafted to meet all student needs in an inclusive manner.
This sort of learning environment is exactly what New Zealand is striving for. The day after I visited the aforementioned school, I met with an employee at the Ministry of Education to discuss learning support, the Learning Support Update, and how the Ministry of Education is supporting schools to become more inclusive and collaborative. She described a vision for inclusive education where schools are designed to meet the needs of diverse learners. Classroom teachers possess the skills and knowledge to plan and implement differentiated lessons to meet the needs of both typically developing pupils and those with special needs. Teacher aides support classroom teachers so that the teachers have time to provide interventions to struggling students. The ideal is to broaden teachers’ skill sets and give them the time and resources to meet a wider-range of needs, thus decreasing the need for specialists and pulling students out of class. It is a lofty, idealized, wonderful vision for education. The question is: How?
This is a question I find myself asking often as I talk to educators here. How did you create such an inclusive environment? How did you develop this shared vision with your school community? How did you get buy-in? I am finding that as I probe methods of stakeholder collaboration, all roads lead back to developing a positive school culture/climate, creating a shared vision, and careful, collaborative implementation of change. It is not about how those working directly with a student communicate and collaborate, it is about how the entire school and school community work together towards common goals. As a result, I find the focus of my inquiry project shifting to looking more broadly at developing school cultures and change implementation, rather than specifically at IEP teams.
On Friday, I will present my mid-point presentation where I will share what I have been doing, my discoveries, and highlights from my grant so far. I plan on sharing how my focus has grown, and my project is becoming something I didn’t quite expect. Afterwards, there is a two-week school break (they get one at the end of each term here), and Elijah and I will be exploring the North Island. This will give me time to check some items of my New Zealand list (Hobbiton here we come!) and reflect on the next steps of my project. I look forward to the time to breath before it’s right back to the busy and fulfilling life of a Fulbright teacher.