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Máirín Kenny, PhD, is a former teacher, principal and educator who has worked for over thirty years with students and parents from the Irish Traveller community, a recognized indigenous ethnic minority within Ireland. Dr. Kenny is currently an independent scholar and conducts commissioned research on equality, disabilities, ethnicity, racism, and sectarianism in Irish education. Hawk Hopes Blog invited Dr. Kenny to share some perspectives on what it means to be an agent of change within the Irish educational context. Here is what she had to say. —Sorcha Hyland
Who are the “Irish Travellers”?
Irish Travellers have been a distinct group in Irish society since at least the twelfth century. They are Irish, but a recent human genome research project has shown them to have been genetically separate since at least the sixteenth century. And only this year they won recognition in Irish law as an ethnic group—a status they have had since 2000 in Northern Ireland (under UK law). There are ethnic populations all over Europe, similar to the Irish Travellers. It is officially recognized that these peoples are targets of the most virulent racism across Europe. There are Irish and European people who will accept immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers—but not the Travellers, or the Roma.
The Irish Travellers’ economic activities married well with nomadism. They turned their hand to whatever trade or service was required and could cover a territory large enough to survive. They traded in horses and donkeys, they worked as blacksmiths (shoeing horses and donkeys), and tinsmiths (making and mending tin cans, buckets, basins—hence their older name “tinker”, a term that acquired pejorative racist meanings). And in the days before village shops, they hawked— selling small domestic goods such as wool and kitchen utensils. Irish Travellers included all sorts of traders who could provide a range of mobile services to a wider territory than the sedentary working population could feasibly cover. In the twentieth century, they turned to trading in second-hand goods, scrap metal, gardening, etc. But the space for these services has shrunk. And at the same time, they are virtually shunned in the employment market—currently, unemployment among Travellers runs at above 70%.
The question “who are they?” is a good one. It never struck the dominant Irish settled population to ask that question—still less did it strike us to ask the Travellers that question. In the early 1960s, prominent social activists discovered the plight of this group—a population of about 6,000, living on the roadside in miserable tents and wagons, with no services, scant access to health or education services, a life expectancy of 30 years, and an infant mortality rate seven times the national rate. But these leaders, and the government, once stirred to action, assumed that these people were dropouts, perhaps descended from homeless peasantry in Famine times. And the solution was to settle them down, clean them up, and fit them in.
In a negative sense, nomadism also shaped everything. In Ireland (and in the UK and elsewhere), Irish society and social structures (law, housing policy, etc.) have traditionally used nomadism as a tool to destroy the nomad: historically, they were needed but not wanted by local communities. Once the work was done, the Travellers had to move on; and at an official level roadside camping was made illegal. In short, the timing of their movements was dictated by the settled population, and the conditions for dignified nomadism were cut from under them, where they existed at all. Very few of them are now nomadic, and even fewer want to be so.
But when they try to settle, they are still in the wrong “place”. Housing policies have driven them into standard accommodation (hugely inappropriate and inadequate), and those who move now do so because they can’t find anywhere to live. Everyone wants them to stop travelling, but not to stop it “here”—Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY-ism).
Today, there are perhaps 40,000 Irish Travellers. Theoretically they have access to all the social services, but racism still raises its ugly head to narrow that. They nearly all stay in school until age 15 years, but that is shockingly far below the completion level for the general population—the education system is failing them more than any other sector. Their life expectancy is 11 years below the national average for women, 15 below for men. Infant mortality is over three times the national average. Suicide rates for men are seven times the national rate, and for women 4.5 times the rate.
Why did you choose to work in school provision for Irish Travellers specifically?
When I chose to work with the Irish Travellers I also thought they were at the extreme end of rural disadvantage—so marginalized that they were homeless. I think I quickly realised that was far from the whole story—if it was part of the story at all.
As a teacher, and later principal in a school for Irish Traveller children, and as a sociologist I was very interested in educationally disadvantaged populations. From the get-go, I wanted to work with people who were experiencing marginalization. I wanted to learn more about and with the people who were being forced to operate in the fringes of the Irish public education system.
What have you learned from your professional experiences both as an educator, a principal and a researcher in relation to Irish Travellers?
It took me a lot of work to really get it that the Irish Travellers are a people with a distinctive identity and approach to life. And one that I have grown to understand and respect hugely. In 1978 I became principal of a school that had been set up entirely for Travellers. Then, the idea didn’t seem as shocking as now! And, I developed an agenda for it—two long-term aims, and once they were achieved, the school should go.
First of all, I argued that like any silenced group, Travellers needed their own space to find their voice, and to read their world, to reclaim their pride, and reflect on their situation—free, for as long as necessary, of the hostile gaze of the oppressor. I think Liégeois (a French specialist on Roma and Travellers in Europe) had a point when he said that the paradox facing Travellers was that they had to enter the house of the oppressor to gain the tools to end their own oppression.
Secondly, I was very concerned with an unspoken notion that I saw at least implicit in education policy towards them– that “Traveller culture” is a euphemism for poverty or deviance. A submerged racism. And among Travellers, there was a mirror-version of that—expressed often in the words “how can Travellers all in together learn anything?” I wanted the school to prove that Traveller culture provided a rich space for a proud and distinct school identity and curriculum, and that Travellers all in together could learn, could go from there to any school of their choice, as good as any child or youth from any other school in the town. In my school, the children could be openly Traveller, and they go on into local secondary (=middle/high) schools, well able to state their case, challenge racism and say why it was wrong. But at the same time, I know that there was a larger structural lesson being learned: the students were Travellers, and were being kept separate.ut at the same time, I know that there was a larger structural lesson being learned: the students were Travellers, and were being kept separate.
However, the mainstream Irish public education system is just not flexible or intuitive enough yet to take in all the different perspectives that ethnicity in Ireland presents. In theory and even in practice, we know where we need to get to. In terms of securing the kind of national and international support necessary to ensure all students, of all ethnicities, have access to fair and culturally appropriate free public education—Ireland– like other European Union member states, like other developing and industrialized and even post-industrialized nations—has a way to go yet. But I think school provision is the wrong place to start.
What has your practice in the field, and your research revealed to you?
The huge thing I have learned – when approaching populations who have been marginalized to the extent that Irish Travellers are –severely disadvantaged, encountering multigenerational cycles of unemployment…the attitude of the dominant education or academic community is often misplaced. The focus tends to be “Let’s get to the children and rescue them first”. I have learned that it can’t work this way. That this way of remediating a human rights problem, particularly involving children and youth from ethnic minorities, does not work. In my experience here you can’t work with the children if you don’t work with the community that envelops the children. In a human rights framework. If the parents are empowered and enabled, if we make a space where they can explore possibilities beyond what has been allowed or offered to them before– then they—the parents, the grandparents, the family members, the guardians and caregivers from within the marginalized population—will make sure the children get the best that they can get.
Our focus needs to shift to not just parental access to education, or parental rights in education, but to creating meaningful and culturally responsive parent-professional interactions where parent-driven professional learning and development can occur. As opposed to teachers working solely with children from populations where they have no prior knowledge or understanding of that population as a living ethnic minority, an evolving culture. Or where they have no professional preparation in critical and culturally reflexive and responsive practices to inquire and learn about the cultures their students and families bring to the classroom.
How are Irish Travellers impacted by other international realities, such as state, EU- and UN-driven incentives around inclusive and special education, if at all?
In the 1960’s, once it was discovered that Irish Traveller children and youth were not going to school on any kind of a consistent basis, activists campaigned to have resources available to them within the special education system (the only avenue to augmented resources available at the time). This was a strategic move, tempting for well-intentioned educational activists. The objective was to intensively up-skill these children, prior to “absorbing” them in the “normal” classes . But the children didn’t move on. Not until the inclusion movement of the 90’s. And then— (beware of what you pray for, you might get it)—in 2007, the Irish Department of Education produced Notes towards a Traveller Education Strategy. Combining the inclusion principle with the need to cut back expenditure, the Department axed all home-school and resource-teaching provision for Travellers. In future, Traveller children would access resources on the basis of need, not identity. How to separate the good from the bad in that statement!?
As regards special education generally, since the 1970’s Ireland has become increasingly influenced by international frameworks of thinking across Europe and more globally as inclusive education, in all its variants, has become the name of the game. This too can be a risky thing. The ideal of inclusive education can only be realised if, in the transition from special provision, the child in question loses nothing of the resources and supports they received in that provision. Truly inclusive education, in any context and of any variant, has got to be more expensive. It must entail additional services and supports and professional training that enable the modern, “inclusive” classroom to be truly universal. At a policy level across EU and in Ireland – we continue to see merely locational inclusion – the placement of children with special needs and/or with generational obstacles to education access all thrown together, in the name of inclusive education. This is not building inclusion. This is in fact worse than exclusion. This is a cost-saver.
How do you distinguish between good versus bad, or even ‘not so good’ practices of inclusive education, in the contexts you focus on?
Locational inclusion is merely a body-count. Are they in the same room? All day? If yes—job done. But real inclusion is making sure every child that is in the room owns the place, belongs. They must feel enabled to operate to the best of their ability within that setting. For example, true inclusion would enable children to access a space where they could remove themselves from a larger group, read, or relax, or sail their boat within the majority classroom. Inclusion must be elastic and modular. It must have a continuum of provisions. All students, including Irish Traveller students, need supports. They all need spaces to draw their breath. All children have the right to the tools and the supports necessary to enable them, in their bodies and with their unique strengths and challenges, systemic or biological, to find their way within the majority classroom. That is inclusion.
How do you describe the educational system in Ireland in general terms?
The general education system in Ireland is too rigid. We should have a continuum of provision so our students, from all ethnicities, with all levels of forms of learning and ability, can operate wherever they need to be to speed ahead or go at their own pace with their own lives. So, if a child needs a lot of physical therapy within the given school-day, they can have this provision within the system and no obstacles in terms of when or how they re-join their peers or class cohort. Our hidden curriculum, not unlike that in the United States, is definitely one of competition and survival of the fittest. At the end of the day you come out of education with or without the piece of paper you need to get into third level (institutes of higher education). There is an undertow separating people for the purposes of economic stratification, that informs the Irish and it seems, most Western public education systems.
Teachers in the Irish public school system are academically bright, highly qualified, and respected in the community with a very strong tradition of successful unionization. The primary (in U.S. terms “elementary”) school teaching force is trained to teach all students aged 4-12 years, not bifurcated into “general” or “special”. But they are almost all middle class, white, and indigenous. Given the rapidly growing ethnic diversity in Irish society, and the movement to inclusive education provision (under-resourced of course), Ireland needs a more diverse teaching force, and substantial investment in relevant, high-quality initial teacher education and continuing professional development.
Where else might the Irish public education continue to evolve, in your opinion?
In the Irish public education system, we need to continue to grow in parent-teacher communication and partnerships. Both on a whole school basis and to face the challenges that arise as new shifts and unexpected realities emerge from our societies at large. The huge increase in diversity in Irish society, over the course of my own career and especially over the last 15 years points to the impact that forced migration, including economic migration, has had on Irish society. Along with that front-end challenge, the system of educational organization has to become more flexible, it has to move beyond its own hidden curriculum and narrow cultural focus.
It is good to see the education partnership growing, where parents, teachers and children become partners in the whole education process. The move towards inclusive education is very good, but it is grossly under-funded. Parents and caregivers in Ireland are no longer sitting on the sidelines. They have become much more vocal.
How did your doctoral work inform your understanding of educational practice and educational leadership in the Irish system?
I did my doctorate in sociology in Trinity College Dublin while I was still teaching. I was a graduate student, a school principal, and a classroom teacher simultaneously. I went into research to try to figure out what were we missing in what Travellers themselves had to say about education, and in how they used language to describe what they were “not”. I love research and I love trying to understand what people say and how that relates to policy.
Equality, equity and the belief that everyone has the right to have access to whatever supports they need to do the best they can informed my position. We should never allow a structural block to limit a person’s potential. That structural block might be a door that isn’t wide enough to allow someone on wheels or using alternative mobility supports to enter, or a system that does not reach out to where people really are. I see no value in just saying “We are very inclusive. So you can now come to us”. If people have centuries of experience behind them, where they know, are told, and experience that they are not welcome – it is not enough for a state institution to just change its mind and say “come on in”. The system must go out to the people, it must reach out to the communities that have experienced marginalization, discrimination, exclusion, oppression – and learn how to include them.
From the designers of educational curricula all the way up to the policy maker– we must know who we have omitted/are omitting, we must reach out to them, learn about them, inform the system how to fully recognize and include them (Bryan, 2010) – to ever proclaim “nothing about us without us”, or “all means all”, or “everyone is welcome”. This is their right.
Otherwise we just sound patronizing.
Máirín Kenny, PhD, is a former teacher, principal and educator who has worked extensively and for over thirty years with students and parents from the Irish Traveller community, a recognized indigenous ethnic minority within Ireland. She is currently an independent scholar. Dr. Kenny has conducted commissioned research on equality, disabilities, ethnicity, racism, and sectarianism in Irish education. She co-edited Traveller, Nomadic and Migrant Education (Routledge, 2009) with Patrick Danaher (University of Southern Queensland). She authored a chapter for Education in Indigenous, Nomadic and Travelling Communities (Eds: R. Griffin and P. MacÉinrí. Bloomsbury, 2014); and co-authored a chapter for Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices (Eds: AK Schulte & B Walker-Gibbs. Springer, 2016). Most recently, she co-authored a book chapter on special education in the Republic of Ireland for The Praeger International Handbook of Special Education (Eds: M. Wehmeyer & J. Patton, 2017) with Dr. Thérèse McPhillips (St. Patrick’s College, Ireland), Sorcha Hyland (Department of Special Education, University of Kansas) and Dr. Michael Shevlin (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland).
Bryan, A., (2010). Corporate multiculturalism, diversity management, and positive interculturalism in Irish schools and society. Irish Educational Studies, 29(3), pp. 253-269. http://doras.dcu.ie/21480/
Liégeois, J. P. (1994). Roma, Gypsies, Travellers. Council of Europe.
Watson, D., Kenny, O., & McGinnity, F. (2017). A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland. The Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, Ireland.
Over the course of an almost-20-year career teaching in public schools and in higher education, I have had the privilege of working with all kinds of people. Some of these individuals have become my nearest and dearest friends. Others float on the periphery of my life—coming into focus every so often to exchange well wishes or compliments on one another’s families. Others…well, our professional relationship ended with new positions or life events that sent us down different paths. I am thankful for each of these relationships—they have all brought me valuable insights on teaching, learning, working with kids, and curricula. Most recently, my career path led me to accept the role of coordinator of the Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate (LSIE) at the University of Kansas. This position involves considerable collaboration—and a new learning curve where I continue to draw on the successes and failures that have shaped my career to date. Here, I highlight what I have learned in my work with others to create more inclusive school communities and reflect on what has been missing in our collective leadership efforts.
As a former special education teacher, a general education teacher, and teacher-educator, I have always held the belief that students with disabilities need to be fully included in the general education classroom. As the product of a relatively traditional special education undergraduate program, this was my initial definition of what “inclusion” entails. I relied largely on where students should physically and situationally receive services, as opposed to a more complex understanding of the habits of thinking and attitudes that produce and sustain inclusive education as a practice and a school culture. Luckily, I was encouraged to explore this deeper definition by my own teacher-mentors, and through formal and informal professional learning opportunities, often prompted by lunch room conversations with other colleagues. Led primarily by my former principal (let’s call her “KD”) — my fellow staff members and I were encouraged as a group to “reflect, refine, and reach higher” in our collective understanding of how to best meet the needs of all students, including students with disabilities.
We worked with students who experienced an array of challenges that moved beyond any categorical understanding of “ability”— poverty, discrimination, and learning English as a second language in an English Only state to mention but a few. In the midst of these realities, KD encouraged us to think about what we could do differently. She inspired us to move beyond pathologizing or situating the problems in the students and their families. She encouraged—or really required us—to think about the positive relationships we needed to build with all children and how to create a culture where there was always “someone who really loved them” at school.
We certainly were not perfect and we encountered many challenges. Yet, with this as our primary mission, we made great strides in creating a school climate where many of our students were happy and comfortable. It showed in their achievement levels and their behaviors. For example, we had a number of kids who challenged gender norms through their dress and attitudes. Some “came out” directly as lesbian or gay with virtually no reaction, and in essence full acceptance, from the staff and student body. As educators and role models, we had many important conversations about “identity.” We considered how we positioned ourselves as individuals as well as how our identies impacted our classrooms where the majority of kids we worked with were racially, ethnically, and linguistically minoritized. In my current role as the LSIE coordinator—many may imagine I have a skewed, if not a romanticized vision of what a school can achieve. However in hindsight and in reality, I have had first-hand experience of the kind of magic strong leadership and inspired educators can produce. I have observed and experienced what students—all students—can achieve when they are allowed to feel included in their own success. This “magic” validates and underscores my belief that inclusive practices work and produce the best outcomes for all students, especially students with disabilities.
As is the norm, many of us in this magical school, under the leadership of KD, moved on to new positions and other opportunities. Yet I continue to return to the stories and strategies I gained from this period in my career to inform my current work in preparing future teachers and administrators. After I left this school, I continued to have many pivotal experiences that further pushed me to think critically about our efforts, and more importantly, to imagine “what could be.” My understanding and definition of an inclusive school is, now, more than ever, primarily focused on social justice. Scholars well-known to KU SPED, Waitoller and Kozleski (2013, p. 35), define inclusive education as,
[T]he continuous struggle toward (a) the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn and participate in educational programs, (b) the recognition and value of differences as reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools, and (c) the opportunities for marginalized groups to represent themselves in decision-making processes that advance and define claims of exclusion and the respective solutions that affect their children’s educational future…
Under KD’s visionary leadership, we made headway on the “redistribution of quality opportunities to learn” while we strived to develop our abilities to better include parents and families in the decision-making process. This remains an ongoing learning process in light of the very structured and standardized educational climate in which public schools across the nation are situated. Visionary and inclusive leadership is not easy. There were times under KD’s leadership when we attempted to enact school-wide reform efforts only to be stopped in our tracks by competing district or state-driven policies.
A framework for systems change (Kozleski, King Thorius, and Smith, 2014) would have been critical in our work, in order for us to adapt to and navigate the complexities involved in engaging multiple, intersecting activity systems. In order to work towards more socially just and equitable results for all students, particularly those at the margins of participation (e.g., students with dis/abilities, those learning English, kids from undocumented families, etc.)—a systems change framework would have been paramount to our efforts.
Further learning was needed for us to understand the multifaceted aspects of our own intersectional identities too and equally, to recognize the intersections our students also navigated and experienced (Crenshaw, 1991). Such frameworks, and an emphasis on intersectionality, would have equipped us to better deconstruct and understand how power and privilege could further marginalize and oppress our school culture, ourselves as teachers, and most importantly our students who came from communities where generations experienced marginalization and oppression first hand.
We made great strides, but not without a lot of challenging and emotionally charged work that had to be done. As I reflect back on our successes and where we fell short – I am, as I know many of my former colleagues are, very proud of the work we, and our students, collectively accomplished at that school. Yet I am again reminded, as Kozleski and Huber (2012) note, that transforming one school is insufficient. As the coordinator of the Leadership in Special & Inclusive Education Graduate Certificate at the University of Kansas Special Education Department(KU SPED), we now have a program that can fill a critical and an important need across many, if not all, school communities.
The KU SPED LSIE Graduate Certificate is designed to address the needs of not just one school, but of an entire system of schools. Our mission is to provide school leaders and administrators with the tools, knowledge, and habits of thinking they need to build a very solid background in special education law and policy, in the context of creating more inclusive school cultures. LSIE positions and prepares professionals from all sectors of school administration—to lead sustainable reform efforts at multiple levels of the public education system. The readings cited in this blog, for example, are indicative of the kind of critical thinking and research-based discussion that LSIE offers its student participants as they learn what it means to become leaders in the field of cutting-edge inclusive education practices, not just in the United States, but internationally.
This 32-week program is designed as a highly innovative, professional online learning experience where state-of-the-art processes such as game simulation of district-level decision-making, interactive discussion boards, and intensive instructor-student and peer-to-peer interactions are used to build deep, collaborative learning opportunities. Participants who successfully complete this online KU SPED Graduate Certificate are fully equipped to advance the rights of all students, confront biases about special education and other historically marginalized populations, and overcome implementation challenges of inclusive and special education policies in systemic and sustaining ways.
In closing, I ask that if any aspect of this story resonates with you – if you are in a leadership position in a school or district, if you hope to be in a leadership position someday, if you are searching for more socially just opportunities for all students, or you are interested in understanding the research on the leading edge of inclusive schools –check out our LSIE Graduate Certificate. Join us to work towards reforming and transforming not just “one” school, but our whole school system as we lead and educate to advance the rights of all students.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
Kozleski, E. B., & Huber, J. (2012). System-wide leadership for culturally responsive education. In J. Crockett, B. Billingsley & M. L. Boscardin (Eds.), Handbook on Special Education Leadership. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Kozleski, E. B., Thorius, K. K., & Smith, A. (2014). Theorizing systemic reform in urban schools. In E. B. Kozleski & K. K. Thorius (Eds.), Ability, equity, and culture: Sustaining inclusive urban education reform (pp. 11-35). New York: Teachers College Press.
Waitoller, F. R. & Kozleski, E. B. (2013). Working in boundary practices: Identity development and learning in partnerships for inclusive education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 31, 35-45.
Dr. Cynthia Mruczek has been an educator for 18 years. She has worked in urban settings as a special and general educator, as well as an instructional coach, serving students from grades three through high school. Her doctoral work was centered on teacher learning and its impact on students of color in urban classrooms. Currently, Dr. Mruczek is currently an Instructor in the Special Education Department at University of Kansas. Her research and consultative work focuses primarily on teacher learning related to issues of equity in the classroom. She has partnered with schools across the country on various topics, including: culturally responsive pedagogy and classrooms, Culturally Responsive Cognitive Coaching and leadership, and building positive teacher/student relationships, among others. Additionally, Dr. Mruczek has partnered with ASU and USAID in providing support for international teacher educators from India and Africa in the area of gender equity in schools. Dr. Mruczek has a strong passion for equity and social justice, which drives her research and partnerships.
We are thrilled to share this blog from two graduates of the KU program who are extending the work of their alma mater on the ground, in their faculty positions. Congratulations, Drs. Lancaster!!
We were inspired by Marti Elford’s December Blog post, Partnerships in Professionalism and wanted to continue the themes of both partnerships and professionalism in our contribution. We teach in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a public university with an enrollment of over 24,000 students and located in western Michigan. The College of Education has a long history of community partnerships and a very strong presence in school districts in metropolitan Grand Rapids. For example, our faculty members run summer camps for students with high incidence disabilities. We provide weekly reading and math clinics through our graduate special education programs, and have recently started more extensive partnerships with two local elementary schools. Each of these partnerships, along with many others, give our graduate students and teacher preparation candidates opportunities to practice implementing recently learned strategies, methods, and approaches while the children with whom they work are afforded intensive instruction in areas of need. As important as these services have become to the local community, we find them invaluable in our teacher preparation program.
In Linda Darling-Hammond’s 2006 article, Constructing 21st Century Teacher Education, she challenges schools of education to, “…venture out further and further from the university and engage ever more closely with schools in a mutual transformation agenda, with all of the struggle and messiness that implies” (p. 302). She continues by identifying and describing three, what she refers to as, “pedagogical cornerstones” essential for transforming teacher preparation. They are: coherence and integration within coursework and between coursework and field experiences; extensive, well-supervised clinical experiences that promote the link between theory, research, and practice; and, new relationships with schools in which strong instruction and professional norms are the rule not the exception.
Our own recent work within the College of Education at GVSU has focused on these three areas. First, the college undertook a curriculum mapping process during which we identified the underlying theories and framework, key research, and evidence-based practices taught in every course we offer. This process helped us to identify gaps, unintentional redundancies, and occasions for intentional redundancies. It also allowed us to identify opportunities for field experiences that might emphasize and enhance the theories, research, and practice we want to highlight.
Next, we took steps to expand our clinical and field experiences. The special education program has taken the lead in this endeavor moving sections of our assessment, oral language, and methods courses into a local school. Teacher candidates attend courses in the school and work for approximately 60 minutes with individual children or small groups applying the skills and knowledge they are learning. For example, they help conduct universal screens, collect progress monitoring data, and then use the data to inform small group instruction. Candidates in the oral language and methods classes provide targeted, intensive small group instruction to primary and upper elementary aged students for 30 minutes each. The obvious benefits are that teacher candidates receive targeted practice and immediate feedback, students in the schools receive intensive and individualized instruction, and faculty and teachers are able to collaborate and share their expertise and insights all toward developing better prepared teachers. A benefit we hoped for but did not expect was similar to findings described by Leko and Brownell (2011) in that at times our teacher candidates were skeptical about the effectiveness and utility of some of the research and approaches they learned in their coursework, but their implementation with children convinced them otherwise. The ability to learn in a field setting, apply learning to benefit students, and realize results with expert feedback has proven to be quite effective and popular with our teacher candidates.
Third, the relationships we are currently developing with schools are indeed quite different from our past approaches. We now spend considerable time getting to know the teachers and administrators with whom we are considering partnering. We discuss approaches for teaching literacy and numeracy skills, content, classroom management, etc. and sometimes attend each other’s professional development activities so that we speak the same language, support each other’s work, and view education through a similar theoretical lens. Our partner schools house multiple courses and six to twelve teacher assistants and student teachers per semester. We have made long-term commitments with these schools but also provide for opt-out pathways in the event the partnership is no longer productive.
Finally, in an effort to give our teacher candidates structured, supervised experiences as early as possible in their education, we created a 100-level course for all potential teacher education students. College students who enroll in the course spend the first two weeks learning and practicing Strategic Tutoring (Hock, Deshler, Schumaker, 2000). In week three, college students and their instructors, move their course to local schools, and each student provides approximately 45 minutes of one-on-one tutoring twice a week to elementary, middle, or high school students. Away from the schools they participate in online discussions reflecting on their experiences and educational contexts.
While we have considerable data in the form of case studies that demonstrate the extent to which the clinical courses and summer camps have impacted student achievement, and we have anecdotal data suggesting that these experiences serve to convince our students of the value of the interventions they learn, we have not attempted to systematically measure the extent to which teacher candidates or graduate students might be changed by these experiences. We would like to learn whether these experiences have an effect on their overall vision of professional practice. As a first step a colleague of ours at GVSU, Dr. Mary Bair, conducted a comparative case study in which she explored the phenomena of professionalism in the College of Education, College of Nursing, and School of Social Work at our institution. Her findings suggest the need for teacher educators at our university to more clearly identify and articulate what professionalism means within our field. She also found a stark difference between the manner in which nursing and social work preparation programs orient their candidates to becoming a professional compared to the way in teacher preparation programs do. Specifically, Dr. Bair found that participants within the education program expressed an individualistic and constrained perspective regarding professionalism in which candidates were encouraged to act like teachers rather than to become teachers. Thus, rather than a singular, focused view of being a professional, individual instructors share their suggestions for how candidates might behave like professionals. Contrary to that approach, participants in the social work and nursing programs expressed a collective and extended view of the construct of professionalism and maintained focus on ethical standards, consumption and production of research, and participation in policy making throughout their programs.
Given Dr. Bair’s findings, similar related findings in the literature, and the national conversation regarding teacher preparation and teachers as professionals, we are convinced that we have considerable work to do. We have made progress toward coherence and integration in our programs, developed strong partnerships within our community, and are offering many, varied opportunities for our teacher candidates to immediately apply their course-based knowledge in the field. Next, we need to firm up our definition of what a professional educator is, articulate and model that definition to our students, orient them to that perspective, and support them throughout their preparation as they become one. We sincerely welcome your thoughts, suggestions, comments, experiences etc.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Constructing 21st-Century teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 300-314.
Hock, M. F., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (2000). Strategic Tutoring. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.
Leko, M. M., & Brownell, M. T. (2011). Special education preservice teachers’ appropriation of pedagogical tools for teaching reading. Exceptional Children, 77, 229-251.
Paula Lancaster is a Professor of Special Education and Chair of The Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University. She completed her PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 1999.
Sean Lancaster is a Professor of Educational Technology also in the Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the COE at GVSU. He completed his PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 2002.
Military families face many of the everyday challenges that civilian families experience. Hectic careers collide with child rearing, family time, rest, recreation, and community involvement. The stress of deployment and frequent moves compound those everyday challenges. Military families’ children can face learning challenges that come from inconsistencies in education standards across states and the complications of dual military family careers. Families can also encounter the strains of recovery from physical injuries, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat. While all these experiences can bolster children’s resilience and comfort with change, along the way, parents and children need support.
One Family’s Deployment Story
A family friend and his wife were a dual military career family and only fifteen months after they married he was deployed to Iraq. When he left the comfort of home his first son was nearly two months old. During the deployment phase, their young family experienced many of the major stresses of life. They celebrated the birth of a child, mourned the loss of both grandfathers, and purchased of a new home. Then, Hurricane Katrina damaged the new home, and the new mother lost her job. Although they received support from family and friends, it was a difficult time for their family even after my friend’s deployment overseas had ended.
The Impact of Deployment
This family experienced the effects of war that we civilians read about. There were bouts of depression, anxiety, withdrawal symptoms and behavioral concerns. Imagine the emotional strains of helping a child work through violent outbursts taken out on siblings or family pets. Consider daily life with adults dealing with emotional distress. A depressed parent might stop eating or lose interest in communicating, even with his or her children. Consider the toll on family life when parents’ anxieties prevent them from being in crowds, make them fearful of loud noises, and result in nightmares. Coping mechanisms can take many forms. Children may stop expressing their emotions or even talking; parents may lose themselves in video games, hobbies, and other obsessive behaviors.
Many military families have similar stories about the effects of deployment on their families. If these are typical military family stories, then picture the stress a military family may encounter when the children in the family have special needs and abilities. Consider fitting multiple hospital trips into already packed days. Moving schools means learning how to navigate special education services in yet another state. Each move may mean additional evaluations. Some military families contend with the fear of losing rank or a promotion due to their requests for frequent leaves.
Managing Day-to-Day Life
In addition to sharing hardships, other friends have revealed their strategies for managing day-to-day life. Families were eager to describe how they helped their children cope with deployment. Their lists included reading children’s books, video recordings that the deployed parent made before leaving, video recordings of the deployed parent reading bedtime stories, and Skype phone calls. One parent disclosed that her daughter has extreme anxiety when she sees an army uniform. Uniforms are a signal that her mother is leaving for extended periods. To prevent the anxiety, the mother changes clothes when she gets on base. Other mothers talked about just pushing through until the end of a deployment. They rely on their tenacity to manage the family’s stresses and complete their missions at home while waiting for their spouses to return.
Needs of Military Families
The military has some resources available to help with these needs. However, some families do not access available military resources. Instead, they rely on family. Others cite the stigma associated with accessing military support services. Still others worry about being passed over for promotion. As I listen to the stories, I am amazed at each family’s coping strategies, resilience, and strength. Military families need educators to walk beside them on their journeys, connect them with resources, and direct them toward appropriate programs that meet their unique family needs.
Today, lengthy and multiple deployments pose many challenges for U.S. military children, families, educators, and community members (Park, 2011). Out of the 1.2 million school-aged military children, only 86,000 attend Department of Defense military schools (Park, 2011). That means that public schools are educating over a million children of military families. Local schools need information about military families. Teachers and other practitioners who work daily with children need to understand more about the practices that would support the social-emotional, mental health, and academic needs of military children.
Early childhood research is particularly important because approximately half a million military children are under the age of five. This is a critical age for child development. “Failure of the school community and family to identify and help military children cope with emotional needs in the school setting can lead to conflict and risk of poor educational outcomes” (Fitzsimmons & Krause-Parello, 2009). Early educators may need additional professional development in order to be comfortable in supporting families through all phases of deployment. My passion is to research the preparation of early childhood educators to support military families in a culturally responsive and strength based manner.
One Family’s Post-Deployment Needs
Eight years after deployment my friend has two sons and a daughter all under the age of eight. One son is entering second grade, the other started kindergarten this year, and his youngest daughter just learned to walk. As the first month of school begins today my friend’s wife is transitioning into the single parent role because my friend is away for a month long military training. Tonight one son was struggling to finish his homework (2+hours), one son couldn’t stop talking about school, and their baby girl interrupted our call with a cry for Daddy several times. As the cell phone disconnected, I wondered if the teachers knew they were a military family. Had they had training to work with military families? Do the boys’ teachers understand the importance of emotional literacy development and social emotional support? What would my friend’s wife need most in the next month from the boys’ teachers?
Top Ten Insights for Teachers Working with Military Families
10. Have “Great Expectations,” they will strive to meet them.
9. Use their strengths to support them in achieving their fullest potential.
8. Provide some extra encouragement and motivation.
7. Help them understand every child is at a different level and accept who they are no matter the type of disability they may or may not have.
6. Give them multiple activities to express their knowledge other than written assignments.
5. Take time to get to know each child’s unique gifts and needs.
4. Ask a military service member for insights into the military culture.
3. Ask the family about their goals for their children and family.
2. Value and encourage the family’s participation in school activities.
1. View the family with a “strength based” lens and guide them in using those strengths to accomplish great things together.
Why Should We Partner with Military Families?
With every challenge, each military family taps new strengths and generates unique ideas for overcoming those obstacles. Imagine how military families could help educators become more culturally responsive in their work with military children and families. Imagine if we focused on the military families’ strengths to help the family: improve family and child outcomes, build resilience, and achieve their long term goals with a sense of fulfillment (Bennett, Deluca, & Bruns, 1997; Bennett, Lee, & Lueke, 1998; Trivette, Dunst, Boyd, & Hamby, 1996; McWilliam, Toci, & Harbin, 1998; Soodak et al., 2002). Imagine if we knew what educators needed in order to better serve military families. By engaging in conversations with each other we can learn how to better work together. As one military general stated, “This is a matter of national security. Soldiers should not have to worry about the education and mental health of their children while serving on the battlefront.”
Bennett, T., Deluca, D., & Bruns, D. (1997). Putting inclusion into practice: Perspectives of teachers and parents. Exceptional Children, 64(1), 115-131.
Bennett, T., Lee, H., & Lueke, B. (1998). Expectations and concerns: What mothers and fathers say about inclusion. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33(2), 108-122.
Fitzsimons, V. M., & Krause-Parello, C. A. (2009). Military children: When parents are deployed overseas. The Journal of School Nursing, 25(1), 40-47.
Park, N. (2011). Military children and families: Strengths and challenges during peace and war. American Psychologist, 66(1), 65.
Soodak, L. C., Erwin, E. J., Winton, P., Brotherson, M. J., Turnbull, A. P., Hanson, M. J., & Brault, L. M. (2002). Implementing inclusive early childhood education: A call for professional empowerment. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 22(2), 91-102.
Trivette, C. M., Dunst, C. J., Boyd, K., & Hamby, D. W. (1996). Family-oriented program models, helpgiving practices, and parental control appraisals. Exceptional Children.
Audra Classen, MS.Ed., is a doctoral candidate in the Early Childhood Unified program at the University of Kansas and works as a Graduate Research Assistant on an IES curriculum development project, CSS+, as well as a Graduate Teaching Assistant completing student teacher supervisor for pre-service educators. Audra was a practicing ECSE teacher for years in Kansas working primarily in district early childhood special education classrooms with 3 to 5 year old children. Her interests and expertise lies in supporting young children’s emotional literacy development, developing social emotional curriculum and interventions, teaching practitioners to utilize emotional literacy assessment techniques, and developing culturally responsive services for military families and their young children. She desires to continue to prepare early educators, general educators, and para educators to differentiate and individualize supports for children of all abilities.
Long ago, my Granddaddy said that the best things said are said with precision and brevity. His learning objects often were Shakespearean: “He who steals my purse steals trash…” (Othello), and “Neither a borrower nor lender be…” (Hamlet). Today our compulsion to communicate with words and video, and the technology and social demands driving it, favor clarity and brevity if we hope to be effective teachers and leaders. Even scholars use social media to augment conclusions from findings published in scientific journals, generally paragons of neither brevity nor clarity, to get word of their work out. Today’s proliferation of tweets, twits, twerps, and blogs demonstrates our cognitive preference for clear and rapid sensemaking of what we read, see, and hear (see Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006a, 2006b).
I’ve always been a less-is-more kind of guy. Keep it simple but, if detailed complexities are required, knock yourself out. Consider Columbia sociology professor Gil Eyal’s (2013) 44-page article advancing the idea that, for several decades, highly contextualized knowledge socially transmitted among numerous professional and lay groups helped form an enormous treatment culture around autism. Arguing a point of view about complex issues often justifies a few thousand words.
Presumably Eyal needed all of his words but most of us don’t. Granddaddy said one precise word is worth 100 amorphous ones. Years later, in an editorial for Education Week, then Boston University education dean Edward Delattre wrote: “Words and phrases used repeatedly without reasoned consideration are inert; powerless to capture reality; doomed to obscure truth, complexity, and subtlety; and therefore destined to mislead those who take them as substitutes for thinking” (Delattre, 1997, p. 36). Little precision and lots of parroting characterize much of the literature produced these days. Our conversations are worse: lots of acronyms, lots of banalities (hearing, “in terms of” makes my skin crawl), and lots of insular “club” phrases (“He’s a Tier 2 kid, he definitely needs to be IEP’d.”) isolate rather than unify us across our professional communities because people outside our exclusive clubs probably don’t understand what the hell we’re saying.
This is unfortunate in two ways. First, the reader’s effort is for naught since s/he takes little away from the brief connection s/he has had with you the writer. Worse, you have not given the reader an opportunity to steal from you (see Brown & Duguid, 1996). Learning theorist John Seely Brown and his colleagues advanced constructivist theory with their work in “situated cognition” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1985, p. 32), wherein they regard learning in the absence of useful application and enactment contexts as suspended in molasses. British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, called knowledge imparted without regard to context “dead knowledge…(and) inert ideas” (1929, preface), and “scraps of information never connected or utilised” (Whitehead, 1929, p. 64).
In contrast, Brown and colleagues view learning as highly contextualized around the learner’s engagement in his or her own problem-solving and his or her intuitive urge to “steal” what s/he needs to know in order to solve the problem or perform the task. We teach and write expecting learners and readers to absorb the world as we view it but, instead, they assimilate the information as imparted, and either dismiss it or accommodate it to the specific contextual demands they face. We don’t typically know what those demands and accommodations are. Granddaddy would say that, to assume we do or can, is arrogant, egotistic, and perhaps even narcissistic. Instead, our responsibility as writers and teachers is to be precise and succinct, allowing learners to do what they do because, then, they are free to steal what they need from us without fear of lock-up in the jail of wordy obscurity.
Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1996). Stolen knowledge. In H. McLellen (Ed.). Situated learning perspectives (pp. 47-56). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Education Researcher, 18, 32-41.
Delattre, E. (1997, January 22). Psitticism and dead language, Education Week, p. 36.
Eyal, G. (2013). For a sociology of expertise: The social origins of the autism epidemic. American Journal of Sociology, 118, 863-907.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006a). Making sense of sensemaking I: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70–73.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006b). Making sense of sensemaking II: A macrocognitive model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88–92.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education and other essays. NY: Macmillan.
Earle Knowlton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education, specializing in human-computer interaction as it pertains to teacher quality and development. He is also Principal Investigator for the Social Tele-Coaching Project, a 3-year research grant funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, that is examining the viability and potency of remote, covert coaching of students with emotional and behavior disorders who are learning the general education curriculum in general education classrooms.