Principal, A.E. Bowers Elementary School – Why would we ever believe that anything less than providing for individual needs, interests, abilities, gifts, and talents would ever be good enough for all of our children?
Throughout my career, I have been committed to children and their learning with particular focus on the inclusion of students with special needs. I didn’t enter the profession intending that inclusion would be a focus in my career – I was blissfully unaware of exclusion. That was the kind of family I was raised in.
My father was the second youngest in a very large family, and we often went to visit my Baba. His younger sister, Aunty Vicki, lived with my Baba. My Aunty Vicki was a great aunt. (That’s her – center stage above.)
She had the very best doll collection, and she would let my sister and I look at her dolls while she was doing her work. Her work consisted of walking to the post office in the little town where she lived and then coming home to help make lunch – it was usually perogies and borscht because that was the lunch that my dad always wanted. When she was finished, she would colour one of the new colouring books that we had brought for her. We knew that she would eventually add it to the 300 or so perfectly coloured books that lined the front porch closet.
It didn’t dawn on me that there was anything different about my aunt or the living arrangement that she had with my Baba. I learned, in my teens, about something called Down Syndrome. I learned it was a genetic syndrome and that there were other people that also had Down Syndrome. I was very surprised to learn that most of the people with the diagnosis shared ‘the look’ – they looked like my Aunty Vicki.
Because I asked questions, I learned that it hadn’t been easy to have a family member with special needs in the 1940s and 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. My father shared with me that he had been asked to take his younger sister to school. He was six years old and she had Down Syndrome. The event was clearly traumatic for him. He says he has blocked out the memory of school after that. There was a great deal of taunting, and she wasn’t allowed to stay.
I didn’t understand how it was that she would be seen as unable to learn. Clearly, she had a lot to contribute. She was able to take a role in the family attached to responsibility. She could cook and clean and help to run a household. I couldn’t help but think that all of the energy that it took to colour all of those colouring books could have been channeled into opportunity – for her and for others.
In my teens, I was perplexed that the school wasn’t a place that allowed someone that I admired and loved to be part of learning. That just didn’t make sense. Clearly, she was an integral part of the community, just not the school community.
Still, special education wasn’t the focus for me. I just wanted to work with kids – whatever they were doing, whatever they were learning. Perhaps because I focused on the learning, I strayed into the arena of special education – got ‘sucked into the vortex’, actually. If a child couldn’t learn – why? If we could understand the why, then we could figure out the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ that would make the learning a possibility. There is so much joy in learning.
I am a school administrator now. I am looking back on a career that included different kinds of programming… regular curriculum, inclusive, integrated, and congregated. I have worked with incredible people, and I have seen students with different abilities learn and grow – and grow, and grow!
The best educational programming for students happens when educators work together – with students, with parents, and with each other – and take advantage of the skills and knowledge of professionals from different disciplines. But it can only happen when the ‘child’ comes before the ‘label’ – when there is a focus on the personal and individual learning… where there is celebration of that progress… and a plan to move forward over time… always over time.
It’s just the same for the child with Down Syndrome, and the child learning to read, and the child struggling to engage her peers appropriately at recess time, and the gifted child, and the child who is learning to live with one parent instead of two, and the child who is just loving school and everything that goes with that…
Why would we ever believe that anything less than providing for individual needs, interests, abilities, gifts, and talents would ever be good enough for all of our children?
And so I am celebrating this change in education. I am celebrating the focus of educators on meeting the diverse needs of learners – ‘any time, any place, any pace’ in what is a new century.
I am celebrating that school isn’t what it used to be… for children and for families. I am celebrating movement in a positive direction in the province of Alberta.