In my last post, I talked about some important leadership traits. In this point, I’d like to talk about a group of leaders that had great influence on my own life: teachers.
My first day of school was an unusually cold, cloudy day as the wind whipped the rain over the prairies. Out on the cement steps, I waited with my classmates to be let into kindergarten. There was something about me that separated me from most of my peers. I had disabilities. In fact, I was among the first students to be integrated into the neighborhood school; before that time, students with disabilities were all located at an elementary school centralizing those learners in one particular school. Now, all students would be educated at their elementary school.
As I grew up, I began to understand much more about inclusion and good teaching practices (although I would not quite have the vocabulary to describe it until I was in graduate school). I was fortunate that, while not always the case, my peers were very accepting of me. I recognize that this is not always the cease. Some of this was my personality; some of this was the way I grew up. Some of this was just the willingness of my peers to be inclusive, to not segregate people because of superficial differences. This is certainly a trait of leadership and I remain very proud of my classmates for their attitude.
The teachers, of course, also played a key role in this process. It began by the concept of presuming competence. This is a big concept in the field of disability studies in education / inclusive special education. It was important that the teachers presumed I was competent. Indeed, a major reason that I was in the “regular” classroom most of the time was because my first grade teacher insisted on it. She was paying more attention to what I could do than what I could not do. Her leadership in this area was paying attention to her students, not allowing a label to determine a destiny.
Another key aspect was the concept of local understanding (Kliewer & Biklen, 2007). The teachers were permitted to interpret things mostly in their own way which allowed the more successful teachers to be able to interpret their students in certain ways. This allowed them to more specifically target educational programs, thus allowing them to be able to reach more students.
The teachers also displayed respect for choices as long as they were not considered “bad” choices. For example, the teachers were okay with doing something officially called “partner dependent communication” (Buekelman & Mirenda, 2005) with me since I had a speech impairment. That is, teachers would often repeat some of what I said if my peers were not able to understand (and, often, it was my peers that were the ones more able to understand me). In disability studies, this is sometimes referred to as “re-voicing” (e.g. Kasnitz and Block, 2012). Again, it is about allowing the individual access to their own voice on their own terms. Sometimes, this is an effort on the part of the re-voicer, but it also allows the individual access to communication under their own terms. In a classroom and other intellectually oriented situations, this can be quite helpful compared to other alternative and augmentative communication strategies.
During my high school years, teachers used the concept of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983). This method allowed the teachers to utilize many methods of learning to assist the learning process. The idea is that we all have different intelligences. For example, I remember square dancing in the hall to learn some grammatical concept. What a sight that must have been to see students square dancing down a hallway. That didn’t really make sense to me, personally, but it may have to someone else and that student, utilizing their kinesthetic intelligence just may have learned something that day. Meanwhile, the teachers were able to direct my strong verbal intelligence toward learning.
Not every student with a disability in my district received the same education and there were probably several intersectional issues that worked in my favor. Still, the inclusive education I received was extremely beneficial to me and this was partially through the dedication of many teachers.
These things happened before No Child Left Behind and other nationalizing of education. States and local school districts were allowed to make many more decisions by themselves. In order to have creative control that allows things like inclusion to happen, I think it is extremely important that we listen to the leaders on the ground. Certainly, this is not to completely dismiss proponents of nationalizing, but only to point out that the people on the ground make a big difference.
My school district, while better off than some in the area, was not extremely wealthy and my hometown is not a particularly liberal enclave in terms of its politics, reducing the claim to the dictum that such change is politically driven by ideology. It shows to me that these things do not always matter. What matters is what is in people’s hearts and minds and what possibilities they are allowed to embrace. The teachers were creative and inclusive in their leadership. This led me to be successful as an undergraduate (also largely an inclusive place) and, ultimately, on to graduate school.
What leaders were most influential to you in your own life?