Only by blurring the boundaries of traditional teacher/pupil relationships can we help children find their own way
“I hate words like autism, sir. Who makes up these words? I hate them. What does autism mean, sir?” Peter, a young man just beginning to become aware of the diagnosis applied to him, sought answers to his questions in the dictionary in front of him, while I, feeling painfully unable to respond, employed techniques learnt initially in teacher training and then honed through several years of experience to redirect him towards the lesson’s far less controversial objectives: finding synonyms for weather-related adjectives.
Peter’s passionate challenge to authority illustrates powerfully the anger and confusion often felt by young people defined as having special needs. He senses that words like “autism” belong to a certain category of vocabulary which he has reason to “hate”. They are “made up” by people who remain unknown to him and carry meanings he is yet to decipher. Had I been quicker-witted, I may have thought to direct him towards a different term, the principles of which I believe must be at the heart of all decisions made by those working with Peter: self-determination.
According to my dictionary, self-determination is “the process by which a person controls their own life” and, I would argue, it is the key to a just and meaningful definition of inclusive education. However, for a reflective teacher attempting to employ the concept in the frequently intense crucible of a classroom, this definition can throw up a huge number of complicated and contradictory issues.
Do I, as a teacher, genuinely listen to my pupils. Do I embrace their hopes, fears, dreams, their sense of fun and adventure and their proclivity for productive chaos? Or, do I insist rigidly upon on-task behaviour and the fulfilment of learning objectives? Am I genuinely open to difference, uncertainty and ambiguity, and brave enough to be pushed outside of my comfort zone? Or, do I cling stubbornly to accepted techniques for training and managing pupils presenting a challenge to my authority? Most importantly, am I open to the idea that my students might be striving towards undiscovered definitions of personhood that are different to those I follow?
It is when working with children with so-called special needs that these questions are most pertinent. Imagine a large and echoing school hall, where deserted tables and chairs lie scattered after a busy lunchtime. Mike, an energetic thirteen-year-old with a keen sense of humour, sits eating with me. Without saying a word, he points behind me, a look of mock-horror on his face; I turn to meet my impending doom at the claws of the imaginary monster and Mike dissolves into laughter. Later that evening, questions surface: Is this “normal” behaviour for a thirteen-year-old? Is this an appropriate response for a professional teacher? Where do my loyalties lie?
This, perhaps, is a question of communication. In the classroom, my interaction with Mike is almost invariably in the form of instructions: “Sit down, Mike”, “Concentrate on your work, Mike.” By contrast, lunchtimes provide an opportunity to engage as equals: to share communication, meaning and the ownership of our interaction. There is no sense of compulsion and the sense of amusement and friendship that our quirky but imaginative game generates dissolves the barriers between us. It feels like we are communicating genuinely, openly and fairly, one human being to another.
Openness to different, and often highly imaginative, forms of communication can be fundamental in encouraging and supporting our students towards self-determination. All pupils throw down this gauntlet on a daily basis and in a myriad of ways. Perhaps the only true measure of whether our education is inclusive is found in our response as teachers.
This article was first published in issue 47 (July/August 2010) of SEN Magazine.