Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Role of the Principal in leading a school towards Inclusion

Research says that ‘the principal is pivotal in creating and promoting an inclusive culture’. Inclusion is all about including children with ‘exceptionalities’, not disabilities. This does not have a negative impact on other children's academic achievement and in fact, in most circumstances, we all learn better from teaching others. There are huge social benefits for both ‘regular’ and ‘exceptional’ children in an inclusive classroom.
Where do you, as a principal, begin the process?
Firstly, you need to understand inclusive education yourself. You will find that inclusion is a ‘state of mind’, or ‘a heart for human rights’. If you believe in everyone’s right to the very best education, you will never again be able to turn away a child who needs to be taught differently. An educational psychologist, Catherine Normand Michell, who visited our school last week, said after she had been, “Although I know it is not an easy ride for a school, it seems to me to be the only choice if we wish to make an educational difference to children, and align ourselves with the constitution.”
Find good examples of inclusive schools to visit and ensure you take along the staff ‘influencers’ – those strategic staff members who will be able to influence the ‘naysayers’. Spend time learning as much as you can - on school sites, on the web, speaking to all people who might influence the decision of your school – psychologists, paediatricians, parents of children with low, high and moderate needs, teachers who feel successful, and unsuccessful in dealing with children with special needs in their classrooms.Connect effective school teaching practice with good inclusive school practice. Good teaching and creative problem solving techniques is actually all you need to help any child achieve their best!You also don’t need to be a wealthy school – your school can become an inclusive school without adding money to the mix!You do, however, need lots of courage. You will need to be brave to deal with skeptics at every level of education, and to deal with current staff members who will choose to leave because ‘the educational standards will be dropping’.
Focus on change!
We must be the change we want to see,’ said Mahatma Gandhi many years ago. If you understand the change process, then you will know the small ‘steps’ that will need to be taken to get everyone to ‘buy-in’ to the process and the ‘end result’. I use ‘end result’ with a smile on my face as we have found that, after small steps started in 1997, we are still in 2014 not at the end…….in fact we’re beginning to believe that there might not be an ‘end’! When every year, we are challenged with a different ‘difference’ to problem solve, we have begun to think that this process is ‘without end’. We don’t know now what challenges tomorrow will bring!Start by developing a broad plan of action with as many stakeholders as possible. You will find that most adults today will find this process hard.  When we were at school, those children with special needs were either in a special school or a special class – certainly this is true for South Africa. Because of this negative connotation, adults with this experience find it very hard not to think that making the school inclusive will drop the educational standards.Realize that not all your staff will 'love' the idea! The way we have dealt with this is to say, “There is a right place for every person at the right time.” This has allowed staff who cannot change to move on to schools which won’t change. Support all efforts by all role players to change behaviour, thinking and speech. We found that we censored each other’s words: we don’t use ‘naughty’, ‘disobedient’ or ‘disruptive’, ‘difficult’ or ‘bully’ anymore because we now understand that a child only ‘acts up’ when overwhelmed by something in his life. If we find out what it is that is causing stress, we will remove the ‘bad behaviour’!Provide time for teachers to visit schools, provide money for attending courses and celebrate every small step towards your goal! Accept that you will not have all the answers at first, and that the school will always be changing, adapting, and progressing.
Create a safe space in the school for people to 'risk'. This means that when teachers want to try something new, the principal needs to be seen to be supporting the ‘trial’ and if the trial doesn’t work, also needs to be heard being positive. If you create a culture that encourages 'learning by doing', then no one will feel a failure if something tried doesn’t work – it becomes another problem to solve in a different way! Real change takes a long time! After almost 20 years in the making, Pinelands North, our inclusive school, is still ‘on the path of discovery’.
Create your team!
Find people to support you, the teaching staff and the school. Identify ‘champions of inclusion’ from amongst your staff, those staff who understand the concept immediately, and invest in their training and growth. Ensure that your leadership team feels empowered to assist the staff who they lead. Include people from the district offices and education departments as much as possible. We have found that if we keep people informed, they help you in small ways when you need help. We have now received a small amount of money towards our efforts: we have part of a teacher’s aide salary paid, we have received equipment to assist pupils, and have also received professional help when it is needed for a child.Find volunteers to assist your staff. We have found that there are many people out there with spare time that are happy to give to a good cause. We have had counsellors, readers, book-coverers, and even volunteer teacher aides and facilitators throughout the years. Lately we have also worked with an NGO that places special needs adults in a supported working environment. These special needs adults have worked in our library, in our aftercare and school garden, helped coach sport and physical education classes, and have assisted with admin tasks like shredding and filing.Involve parents in their children's learning. The more they understand about the learning process, the more effort they volunteer. Remember though, that parents also need to come to terms with their children not being the ‘perfect’ little specimen they conjured up when they found out they were pregnant! Some parents need a few years of patient discussion, but once they realize that the school is really just trying to help their child best, they change their attitude and start to work with the school, for their child’s benefit.
The path of progress
Progress is slow – in some cases very slow! Solve practical problems, one at a time, with creative ideas. Encourage experimentation amongst teachers and also encourage them to problem solve co-operatively. Celebrate all progress, even the small steps, particularly with staff who aren’t finding the changes easy. Realize too, that your goals will keep changing as your school grows more inclusive. Each time we think we have a particular ‘difference’ pinned down, we find out that the goal posts have shifted much further, and maybe even out of our reach for a while.Keep asking questions and learning from those schools and people who are further down the path towards inclusion.
Share all successes with all stakeholders! Every little step forward should be celebrated publically, and communicated widely. Use your own newsletters and school website, the local press and all school community meetings to tell everybody about the positive spinoff for everybody at the school, of the school’s move towards inclusion. Keep communicating with everybody all the way through the process – mention examples of practices at Governing Body meetings, when attending conferences and at staff meetings.
Trust the children to speed up your progress! They will always challenge you to think about the next step sooner than you thought you would need to! Look at what children can do at school, and do not focus on what they can't!
Replace those teachers who leave because they are struggling with the ‘new rules for behaviour’, with those who believe in inclusion and it’s benefits. Believe me, there are teachers out there who have come to our school because they have felt isolated at their previous schools because others didn’t see things the way they did. They know that being at an inclusive school is hard work, but good teaching is also hard work!
Don't lead the process alone, the more people in the school who take up the challenge the better. Try to get everyone at school knowledgeable. We have found training our ground and cleaning staff has been well worth the hours! They care for our children around the school when we are not there, and they understand which children need special handling!
Don't follow policy to the letter. Each school will change, adapt and develop better policies than those presented! Each school is different as it serves a different community – this means that each school will need to tweak the policies, maybe only just for some children!
Make sure you teach children with exceptionalities yourself to model good practice! Many principals have given up their primary focus when they became principals. For me, my special joy is teaching on Fridays! I teach three combined classes of very bright children between the ages of 7 and 13, and when I return to my office after teaching, I am bursting with enthusiasm to share the little anecdotes about who said what, who surprised me today, who was ‘hanging from the chandeliers’ and who had just produced a fully professional movie on Leonardo da Vinci for their latest project!Because I teach, and because I teach ‘different’ children, I can share my teachers’ frustrations but also share some of my ideas that have worked when dealing with those who are ‘energetic’.
Keep evaluating your school practice. This is very important as some ideas will work and some won’t. Accept that you won't always get everything right and that sometimes children need more help than you can provide. Just about every child with every syndrome is different anyway so saying that your school can deal with children who have Down’s but not with children who have autism, is misleading.Walking along the road to inclusion has been an exceptionally positive move for our school. We have lost some good teachers but have gained others, lost some fabulous children but gained others, deflected some negative publicity but gained other very positive! Your school’s road will be very different from ours but is certainly will be worth every step! Ours has been!