Throughout my time in the Bachelor of Education program, I have had a lot of opportunities to consider how I would define the concept of Inclusive Education. At this stage, I do not think I have yet come to a fully satisfactory definition of capital I Inclusive education, however there are some elements that I consider to be essential in defining my understanding of the concept. First, inclusion means that all students are welcomed within the space of my classroom as well as within the space outside my classroom. Regardless of how students chose to or chose not to identify themselves, they must feel that the spaces they inhabit are safe where they can express those identities.
I realize that this ideal is difficult to achieve as I can only control my own limited space within the school context, and as a result other spaces in the same school may not be safe for students. I also believe Inclusive Education is defined by finding ways of representing the diversity students experience in the classroom. As important as cultural relevant pedagogy is in creating an inclusive environment, it must be noted that doing so is not always a straightforward process.
While the benefits of this approach may seem self-evident, we need to be careful how we approach culturally relevant pedagogy to ensure that it actually is inclusive. Gloria Ladson-Billings in her 1995 article, “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” lays out her case for creating an environment where the cultural disconnect between students and teachers is bridged (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Initially, this approach seemed to make sense and I began to consider how I would incorporate the strategies into my own teaching practice. However, as I read more closely and began to map out some of those strategies, it became apparent that one of the shortcomings of culturally relevant pedagogy is the underlying principle that student success is the sole responsibility of the student. When considered within a special needs context, the shortcomings of this approach become more evident. For example, Billings notes that within this model students choose academic excellence (Ladson-Billings, 1995). My issue with this is, the concept of academic excellence is too fluid to be of any use. If one defines academic excellence traditionally as straight As or mastery of a subject, then many students have been excluded since not all students will meet this narrow definition of academic excellence.
An inclusive classroom, in my mind does not eschew representing the high level of diversity of the students, but it ensures that all students are able to participate in classroom. A grade 7 student who reads at a grade 3 level because of a learning exceptionality cannot choose to be academically successful in the traditional sense. Her academic success may be helping her read at a grade 4 level at the end of the year. I believe it is important to be aware of the ableism that informs some of the theory around culturally relevant pedagogy.
As I continue to reassess my understanding of inclusive education, I have become more aware of my own deficit thinking. To be fair, I had not heard this term prior to my starting the education program. Reflecting not only on my time in the elementary school system, but also when I taught at the university level, I understand that too often I would make judgements of my students based on faulty and incomplete information. This realization did not come without some embarrassment or guilt as I considered myself to be a person who did not discriminate against people. But there are times when if a student, whether and adult or a child, did not perform the way I expected them to or behaved in ways that I considered inappropriate for the classroom, I would think about what deficiencies that person had – not interested in the course, not prepared for higher education, s/he comes from that family, etc.
Confronting my own deficit thinking is probably the largest shift I have had to make since beginning this program. As Eizadirad notes, “too often, dominant discourses problematize and place blame on students and their cultures for their failures and level of disengagement…” (Eizadriad, 2016). Over the past few weeks, I have tried to re-examine how I view my students and try to understand by own biases in my teaching approach. I have made more effort to try to understand the background narrative my students bring into the class. While many of my students are recent Canadians, I am also aware that inclusion is required for students whose exceptionalities are not evident. Because of the socio-economic realities of my placement school, almost all my students are coming with some kind of trauma. Because their home lives are highly disruptive, I try to be inclusive by providing a calm learning environment where students can be confident that for a part of the day, they are welcomed and included. This means being aware of behaviours that are not acceptable in the classroom, but by being aware of the stories behind those behaviours it is easy to avoid placing the blame on the student and rather work towards resolving some of the underlying issues. This of course presents its own problems. I am not a social worker and much of the baggage that my students bring are not resolvable. Thus, my job is to ensure that I understand where my students are coming from.
One of the more challenging things I recognize I need to do as teacher is to decolonize my teaching. My background as a professor of European history has informed my own world view as Eurocentric. However, this worldview does not work within the diverse classrooms of Ontario’s schools and I am aware that some of thinking falls within the continuum that Reid and Knight define as acceptable and unacceptable based on a set of standards that privileges Eurocentric and ableist conceptions of knowledge (Reid and Knight, 2006). Within the past week I have had to rethink my thought process. In Ontario grade 11 English classes, there is a push to remove Shakespeare and other European authors and replace with an Indigenous literature (here). My first reaction was somewhat negative, but then I tried to think why that would be the case. After all, I believe in Indigenizing the curriculum. And I realized that my response was rooted in my own Eurocentric worldview and that I do privilege European culture at the subconscious level. I must be more aware and do more work within the context diversity to continue to challenge my own internal biases.
Inclusive Education is the goal that all educators need to pursue. However, as we pursue creating an inclusive environment, we need to remain conscious of the biases that we bring with us. Inclusion is more than wheelchair ramps and well-written IEPs. Inclusion comes when we rethink our worldviews and view students as individuals with their own capacities and abilities. When students feel safe and welcomed in our classrooms, only then have we created a space where Inclusive Education can take place.
Eizadirad, Ardavan. “International Experience in a Non-Western Country, Teacher Habitus, and Level of Inclusion in the Classroom,” International Journal of Teaching and Education. IV, 1/2016.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” Theory into Practice. 34. 3/1995.
Reid, Kim and Knight, Michelle. “Disability Justifies Exclusion of Minority Students: A Critical History Grounded in Disability Studies.” Educational Researcher. 35. 6/2006.