Being Inclusive: A Required Step Towards Student Success and Well Being

Mountain Scene Sample For Blog Post

Share This Post

Emily Perl Kingsley published a poem in 1987 titled “Welcome to Holland,”1 about a mother’s dream of expecting a perfect child, only to then be alarmed and disheartened when she discovers that the child has a disability. She is saddened and unprepared, but when she has support and gains insight, she begins to look at her circumstances differently. Through Kingsley’s narrative, we become aware of a gentle shift that the mother makes into acceptance and love for her child.

The poem is a metaphor comparing this mother’s experience to a travel experience of planning and looking forward to going to an expected destination, Italy, and finding that she had landed somewhere completely different and unexpected, Holland. The poet explains that she was prepared for Italy – she read the guidebooks, understood traditions and culture, and knew what she was interested in doing there. In Holland, she felt lost, confused, and probably unhappy.

“Welcome to Holland” could just as easily be a metaphor for education today. It’s possible that our teachers arrive on the job with an expectation that their pedagogy is sound, and as a result their students should be successful. They know their program of studies, have their resources, their year plans, and their expected outcomes. They feel prepared, comfortable, and ready to do their job.

Yet we hear from many teachers that this is not always the case. Some have expressed feelings of being overwhelmed and isolated in trying to meet the diverse needs within their classrooms. This is not where they expected to be. They don’t have the resources, the training, expertise, or time to be responsive to the degree of diverse needs within their classrooms.

Many are blaming inclusion for disrupting the system, which is fair. The word “inclusion” is confusing and, as a result, we lack clarity about our end in mind. We can only make meaning of words by our own experiences and history attached to those words. The use of the word inclusion and its associated meaning has evolved continuously; and as a result, the word has described different concepts at different points in time. Many have adopted an understanding of inclusion that is embedded in the special education world, describing a process of programming for all students in “typical” classrooms.

Alberta Education’s policy for inclusion says that, “Inclusion is a way of thinking and acting that demonstrates universal acceptance and promotes a sense of belonging for all learners.” An essential understanding of this policy includes thoughts that are universally received, have lasting value beyond the classroom and will always be with us. Our work in Parkland School Division has shown us that our essential understanding for an inclusive education system needs to become a coalition: “Being and doing inclusion becomes the lens through which we develop mindsets of respect, understanding, and belonging, leading to a natural way of being.”

Our staff has worked diligently to embed “doing” inclusion into their daily practice. Our challenge is continuously to identify how to support our staff to become empowered or have the capacity to embed the “being” piece into their practice.

The shift in practice that we are striving to accomplish is heart-work. We want to create experiences for our staff where they can reflect on the following question: “What is the experience that is created for your students in your presence?” It is important for us to know that our staff create experiences for their students – all their students – where they feel that they are really seen. Positive and supportive relationships and connections become critical.

The work within our schools and division focuses on being clear about our understanding of an inclusive education system. We have to engage our staff in looking differently at and identifying problems of practice – what’s getting in the way of delivering on this foundational belief system? Often a problem
of practice is identified as a symptom of an underlying issue that has a root cause.

Over the past three years, one of our high schools embraced the work of Jigsaw Learning in putting the scaffolding in place for teachers to implement the Collaborative Response Model, Hewson, 2015. Capacity building comes in many formats. While there are certainly times that a one-shot experience to learn about a specific topic is appropriate, developing networks between educators is also essential. Schools are filled with years of experience and much wisdom to respond to the unique needs of students. Teaming becomes the venue for sharing insights and strategies to develop the efficacy needed to embrace the universal acceptance needed to create a sense of belonging for all.

We have also identified that we need to be clear to our key stakeholders (staff, parents, community, and students) about the evidence that we are looking for and reporting in a manner that stakeholders can easily understand.

As we continue to participate in a provincial Assurance Model for education, our planning and reporting are heavily dependent on stakeholder engagement. We present our desired state through “assurance elements” – those unique aspects that stakeholders would expect to see to gain trust and confidence that we are
achieving our intended outcomes.

Just as Kingsley’s protagonist realizes she needs to learn a whole new language, we must think about planning for inclusion in a different
way. The system priorities and goals need to clearly define inclusion as both a learning goal and a value, one that is reflected in the budgeting allocations for professional learning and for enhanced supports and services for all our students.

Kingsley concludes her poem with a strong thought: “If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things… about Holland.” Freeing ourselves to find enjoyment in the destination, thus embracing inclusion, provides us with the opportunity to encourage each one of our schools to design their own path for their respective journey. Each one of our schools have their own unique identity. They all encounter varying degrees of community and stakeholder influences depending on the community they serve. Regardless, we all have the same vision and we all embrace the concept of equitable access to quality programming for all our students.

We work in a complex human system and, as such, embracing a collaborative approach to problem solving is helping us move further along with inclusion towards our ultimate goal of student success and well-being. We continue to make inclusion, wellness, and quality learning a priority and act based on what we know about ourselves and about our students. We continue to lean further into the discomfort, learn from both what worked and what didn’t work, just as the mother in Kingsley’s poem did.

Our mission is that we assure supportive learning environments, meaningful experiences and healthy relationships that create opportunities to develop resilience, to gain diversity in perspectives, and to achieve enduring success. We engage from a place of acceptance and caring that is felt by students and our community will feel confident that we will support all our students, even if it takes time to figure out what supports need to be in place.

More To Explore

Pexels Anurag Upadhyay 10958547 (1)

Walking Together Towards Inclusive Education

Parkland School Division’s (PSD) Board of Trustees, along with Superintendent Tim Monds, have established an ultimate goal of success and well-being for all students along