In my last post I mentioned five significant changes to education in Australia (and, let’s face it, around the world) that I have seen in my thirty-year career. Here is my take on the first two:
1. Inclusion of children with disabilities
In the 1980s when I was a neophyte teacher, in mainstream schools there were very few ‘disabled children’ (this term, common for the time, focused on the disability rather than the person). These children went to ‘special schools’ which catered for ‘disabled children’. I did my work experience when I was in year 10 at such a school and found it a thriving, welcoming, bright learning space with talented teachers who deeply cared for their charges: the students who presented with a range of physical, cognitive and intellectual disabilities.
After the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 the push for ‘inclusive schools’ took up pace, and ‘mainstream schools’ — especially government schools — attracted higher enrolments of students who were not able-bodied or had IQs and behaviours outside the ‘normal’ range … which contributed to the rise in students with ‘learning difficulties’ in any one class … which necessitated teachers to modify their lessons, often in several directions, to cater for all their students’ needs.
I can feel your anger at me growing as the bile rises in your throat at my last statement, so let me explain: the necessary resources did not follow the students, leaving them floundering. Without additional infrastructure — the Education Support (ES) staff (the integration aides who ‘tag’ individual students, and who are included in this post‘s survey on excess workload), and the necessary physical classroom arrangements, such as ramps and barriers to items which could become weapons (no, I’m not joking) — I question deeply whether these children (and their peers) are getting the education they are entitled to, and which they deserve. And this has not touched on the bullying students receive because they are ‘different’.
2. Increase in numbers of students with diagnosed learning difficulties and conditions, anxiety and mental illness, including lack of self-regulation
I have taught classes with a child who is known for ‘going ballistic’, where teachers are instructed to remove the other students and lock the door on the child who is having the meltdown (and these children DO have meltdowns and classrooms DO have to be evacuated). How is this inducive to anyone’s sense of safety, let alone creating a welcome, inspiring, learning environment?
With due resources such as adequate staffing (I’m looking at you, Education Department!) such students can be guided into channelling their energy positively, with good effects, and harmonious classrooms can be the norm, inclusive of students who lash out or have not learnt constructive ways to behave.
Medication can be of assistance with this, but I would much prefer wholistic behaviour modification therapies over medication, if possible. The seeming willingness to prescribe anti-depressants to children as young as twelve is deeply worrying to me. One of my students ended up leaving school in year 10 because he’d missed so much: the side-effects of his anti-depressants made his world so unreal, unfamiliar and strange he experienced psychotic episodes.
The number of ‘cutters’ is another significant change, and this mirrors the wider societal change in how mental illnesses are viewed. Back last century ‘mad’ people were locked away in mental institutions; nowadays they are not — and rightly so, as workable community solutions are ideal. There have been great innovations in this field (Beyond Blue and Black Dog Institute are two fine examples), and more places of assistance have arisen since Covid-19. Yet it has brought the occurrence of displays of mental illness into mainstream classes. Thirty years ago, I had no students self-harming in my classrooms. Fifteen years ago, I saw one or two across six classes (that’s one or two students in 100). Nowadays, there’s regularly one per class (that’s one in 25 students).
Part of the rise in the figures of students with learning difficulties is the increased rate of diagnosis: I now regularly receive advice of students in my classes with diabetes, ADD, ADHD, ODD, ASD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia and many other acronyms and conditions, in all their variations. I estimate that more than half of my students in any one class (multiply that by six different classes for a full-time secondary teacher) has an alert about something in their history — suddenly I, and all my fellow teachers, have to firstly find the time to read all the supporting information to be of best assistance to these students, and secondly to become expert enough in these medical fields to know how we can manage the students and their diagnoses, in all their variations. This administration can take hours … and that’s before I even meet the students!
I’d prefer to have the information on these students and their conditions than not. Similarly, I’d much prefer to have the time to fully absorb the information, and to act on it with an individual learning plan that is more than the regular work with bits chopped out of it … but that’s what the survey that prompted this post was about, right?
So it seems we’re still Tinkering Around the Edges and Not Addressing the Real Issues which make the Education sector so difficult to work in.