I accepted my first teaching position in Alberta in 1977. It was a large elementary school in High River, and my assignment was a Grade 1 class. There were two or three classrooms at each grade level, one junior special education class and one senior special education class. Each special ed class included five or six students, a highly specialized teacher and at least one assistant. Some students required a one-on-one assistant. With small numbers, teachers were able to provide individualized programs and life skills. These children played in their own space at recess and were kept very separate from the rest of the students. Change was necessary.
In the early 1980s, our assistant superintendent visited each school and described to the staff the merits of “integration.” Dr. Porter cautioned us that this initiative would be more expensive but better for students, and we were convinced. Some were skeptical, but the following school year we were ready and went forward with the plan. It worked very well. The students came to age-appropriate classrooms for certain subjects. They were accompanied by a teaching assistant. They played outside with their friends and learned how to be a part of the school community. They still spent a good part of the day with the special ed teacher and continued small-group instruction and individualized programs. We recognized that integration was the right approach and long overdue; we embraced it and were excited to be part of its success.
But similar to many successful education initiatives, employers started looking at costs. Could two or three students share a teaching assistant? Could assistants work in two or three classrooms? Could the school manage with one special education teacher? Over time, this wonderful proven program eroded to the point where students who needed the special help and special programs were included in overcrowded and underfunded classrooms. It became more difficult and often impossible to meet their needs. It saddens me that our young teachers have never experienced how well inclusion can work.
Now, 35 years later, we have more students bringing with them their strengths and their needs, making up highly complex and diverse classrooms. Students come to school not ready to learn because of poverty, chaos or abuse, or because they are hungry or not mentally healthy. We have students who come to our classrooms not speaking or understanding the language of instruction. Teachers are expected to diversify their instruction to include all students. Children who have not learned to control and manage their emotions put other students and teachers at risk of injury. Under these circumstances, teachers have little time to celebrate the richness of diversity.
So what has our profession done? I will briefly comment on only three initiatives of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. If you review the research, you will find that the profession has shared and continues to share the evidence with policy makers, education partners and ministry officials. About 10 years ago, the Association partnered with Finland in a joint research initiative. I had the opportunity to visit three schools in Finland. We reviewed their early childhood policies. The cornerstone of their education system is equity. Intervention starts at birth, and the children are monitored throughout their preschool years. If speech and occupational therapy are needed, intervention is immediate and every possible reason for not being successful in school is addressed. Parents are supported and participate in the intervention.
Once the children enter school, the support continues as necessary. Class sizes are less than 20. All students access the no-cost lunch in the school cafeteria, ensuring they all have a nutritious meal.
We can do this in Alberta. It merely takes political will.
A Great School for All: Transforming Education in Alberta is another example of the outstanding leadership of the province’s teachers. This research document outlines a clear vision of how we can support equity and capitalize on diversity. It has received worldwide recognition.
In September 2014, the Association released the Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools. The panel listened to teachers, completed a comprehensive research review and outlined 38 recommendations.
“Alberta has a choice — to accept inadequate implementation or to become a world leader in research and successful inclusion practices,” the report stated.
So what is the main takeaway message from these three initiatives? Hint: what did I conclude from the special education situation I encountered in 1977? The answer: Change is necessary.
How can teachers effect change?
At the Annual Representative Assembly a few weeks ago, ATA president Greg Jeffery encouraged teachers to make education a priority in the next provincial election. And former president Larry Booi stated, “We don’t get what we need or what we deserve. We get what we fight for.”
Our students, especially our students at risk, are worth fighting for, so let’s make life better for them by raising our voices and making education an election issue now and in 2019. ❚
Carol Henderson was president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association from 2009 to 2013.