In the revised Teacher Quality Standard due to be introduced in September of 2019, the fourth competency required for teacher certification in the province of Alberta focuses on establishing inclusive learning environments. “A teacher establishes, promotes and sustains inclusive learning environments where diversity is embraced and every student is welcomed, cared for, respected and safe” (p. 6). Given the rapidly changing demographics in our schools alongside a growing awareness of how our education system needs to address many of the inequities that continue to exist with respect to what knowledge has been valued and shared as well as an eye to a world that has the appearance of becoming increasingly polarized, establishing an inclusive learning environment would appear to be a necessary competency as we move forward. But what would a classroom like this look and feel like?
For my students who are gifted, and some of whom are highly sensitive, I endeavour to make my classroom a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning space that embraces the diversity that each student brings to it. And while I admit to occasionally playing Vivaldi in low lighting while the students enter the classroom in the morning and was described by one student as the most zen person they know, I believe that the work toward inclusivity that goes on in this space was best summed up by a group of students who had been working on a creative problem solving project together. When asked to reflect on the learning that occurred this year that they want to carry forward, these three observations blew me away:
- Disagreements help you learn.
- Arguments can lead to the right answer.
- Sometimes it’s someone else’s turn to be right.
As soon as I read the list I was reminded of the many heated, tense, tearful, uncomfortable moments we experienced this past year as we worked together. Relationships are difficult. When they matter, they challenge us to examine who we are and what we believe in a way that influences who we are going to become. When they are authentic they allow us to “treat ourselves as both subjects and objects and to treat others primarily as subjects, i.e. sensitive, reflective beings who aspire to higher levels of values, who suffer in the present from internal and external conflicts, and who have their own individual aspirations, problems, abilities and experiences” (Dabrowski, 1975, p. 2). When they are ethical we “step out of our allegiances, to detach from the cages of our mental worlds and assume a position where human-to-human dialogue can occur” (Ermine 2007, p. 193). Caring, safe and respectful spaces do not materialize without discomfort. Saying “this is an inclusive space” and prescribing what the behavior in that space “looks like” carries the danger of becoming a hegemonic enterprise that never allows our authentic selves to see the light of day.
Inclusive spaces are inherently difficult as in them we need to not only create a safe space for discord but a means of navigating that discord to a “destination” that is established by those who are in the process of rattling those mental cages and challenging those allegiances in order to authentically see and be seen on our journey of becoming. Finding a compass that everyone trusts is crucial, (I find that respect makes for a pretty solid north star), and daily reorientation through reflection and triangulation with compass points that include understanding and forgiveness (for starters) is essential. My hope is that when my students leave this space that they have the compass and navigational skills to authentically and ethically work on fostering strong relationships and inclusiveness wherever they go.
Dabrowski, K. (1975). On authentic education. Unpublished document.
Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193-203. Retrieved from https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/17129
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