Walking Together Towards Inclusive Education

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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 with a mission to prepare, engage and inspire them to be their best in a quickly changing global community.

Foundational to this is creating quality learning experiences within a culture of wellness and inclusion. We, like most jurisdictions in Alberta, started the journey of creating an inclusive educational system many years ago. In the beginning, we read about and went to conferences on universal design for learning, read and reread foundational documents like Setting the Direction and connected with other jurisdictional leaders across the province. As we synthesized our learning, we articulated a common vision and identified expectations to create a common understanding of what we were trying to achieve.

We expect to see all students:

  • Be meaningfully linked to the Program of Study;
  • Have the supports and services they need to access educational programs;
  • Be safe and healthy; and
  • Feel they are welcomed and they contribute.

These expectations continue to guide the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. However, some people still ask, “What does inclusion really mean? How do we do it? How do we know if we’re doing it right?” These questions tell us we still have work to do.

Our division has created a culture where student success within inclusive environments is closely linked to well-being and the development of social-emotional assets that build resiliency. As a result, we’ve implemented an initiative focused on resiliency and hired a coordinator. We began to work on the implementation of comprehensive school health. Over the years, we have learned that wellness for both students and staff is foundational to developing a school culture that can deliver on our goal of student success within inclusive environments.

We have learned that inclusion is not just something you do, but also a feeling that is created; a feeling where everyone belongs, feels supported and believes they contribute to the community in a meaningful way. So, as our next step in the journey, we realized that in order for us to deliver on our agenda, we needed to be intentional about knowing thyself and knowing thy student. We asked ourselves, “What does this look like in PSD?”

Know thyself

Healthy adults nurture healthy students. Our central nervous systems are made up of energy. When we get nervous, anxious or feel inadequate, we begin to get activated and then that energy can show up in ways that are not always healthy; we try to do more, we shut down and fear trying something new, or we begin to doubt ourselves.

When we are activated and we come in contact with students who are activated, it can become uncomfortable and make it difficult for us to make sense of what it is we are trying to accomplish. Let’s slow down. If we really do believe we don’t need to have all of the answers right now, we can lean into that discomfort instead of running away from it. When we take time to know ourselves and learn to understand why we are responding in certain ways, we can be vulnerable in working with our students, families and colleagues to help us figure out our next steps.

To support our staff to better understand themselves, we offer professional learning opportunities that focus on wellness and getting to know thyself. We host workshops with a focus on yoga, mindfulness, physical literacy, walking groups and personal retreats. To model and nurture wellness among our leaders, we take time during administrative meetings to embrace a few mindful moments, engage in physical movement and have reflective conversations with our colleagues.

As an organization, we intentionally design space and opportunities for people to learn, share, grow, heal and connect. Adults who are well can build and cultivate environments where everyone feels like they belong and have contributions to make to the community. We need to create spaces where people can come together to identify and experience a sense of inclusion.

Know thy student

In order for us to remove barriers to learning and improve environments for each of our students, we need to really understand them. We need to know their back stories, hopes, dreams, passions and strengths. We need to be able to look at each one of our students and say, “I see you; I see you and you are enough just the way you are.” In the wisdom of Brené Brown, we want students to belong and not just fit in. Embracing diversity means we see it as a strength that enriches us and helps us grow as individuals. As a result, we are more able to design programs where students are happy, healthy and successful, receiving the right supports and services so they can achieve the outcomes from the Programs of Study.

In PSD, teachers use a variety of tools to help them see their students. In Kindergarten to Grade 9, we use a classroom profile tool where teachers identify the degree to which students are engaged in different aspects of education such as literacy, numeracy, transitions and physical literacy. Some teachers send home interview questions for parents such as, “Are there holidays you don’t celebrate and how would you like me to address these in the classroom?” Teachers use academic assessments as well as student interest inventories to get to know their students. Some even go to their students’ community sports games.

One school used a “fish out of water” activity to identify students who they believe are not connected to at least two adults in the school. Then, every staff member took on one or two of those students and made it their mission to really get to know and build a connection with those students throughout the school year. Building relationships is important to us and we continually look for additional ways to get to know students in more ways than just academics.

In educator Shelley Moore’s video on transforming inclusive education, she helps us to see that when we design learning for those students on the edges of our classroom—for our students with the most unique and sometimes challenging needs—then we are more likely to make learning accessible for all. In this process, we are truly designing an inclusive environment.

In her Ted Talk, Under the Table, Moore also talks about the importance of presuming competence for all of our learners. Sometimes we make assumptions about what students can and can’t do, and these assumptions can and will influence the design of our learning environments. When we presume competence and believe in our hearts that there are different ways of knowing and different ways of demonstrating learning, then we are open to all of the possibilities that are available to us and our students.

When we lean in, when we get curious and walk beside our students to get to know them in deep and authentic ways, we see them and embrace them for all they are and, thereby, will be better able to identify what specific supports and services our students may need.

The union

As our wellness coordinator said about embracing stillness, “Let’s imagine that time could be stopped just long enough so that we could all hold onto and bottle up the sense of well-being that we experience when we’re doing exactly what we love. If we had the ability to maintain a sense of well-being in everything that we do and extend that feeling to all those with whom we come in contact, we would certainly ensure that all students were experiencing the division’s ultimate goal of student success and well-being.”

Perhaps, when we really know our students, know ourselves and are well, we may be better able to respond to the diverse needs in all of our classrooms. We will no longer need to ask, “What is inclusion?” and “How do we do it?” Wellness and inclusion are inseparable. We cannot truly build inclusive environments without focusing on wellness and quality learning. We need to take the time to get to know ourselves and our students to do this well.

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. Let’s continue to make inclusion, wellness and quality learning a priority and take action based on what we know about ourselves and our students. Let’s lean further into the discomfort and learn from both what worked and what didn’t work. Let’s walk together.

Featured image photo by anurag upadhyay from Pexels

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Walking Together Towards Inclusive Education

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