About Me

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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Lead to include: What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong?

I remember early in my school leadership career talking with a family about the school experiences of their daughter who had been ostracized because of her learning disability. Britney (not her real name) talked about often being placed at a table in the back of the classroom where she would be given worksheets to complete. She talked about regular visits out of the class with the school's special education resource teacher. On the playground, she struggled to make friends. Britney was a quiet, shy student who became more reserved as she experienced bullying at the school and on the school bus. Britney felt little sense of belonging in the school.

Now Britney was moving into Grade 7 in my school. I attended the transition meeting that occurred in May at her previous school. I listened to the comments of her teachers, the resource teacher, and the principal. I heard her mother's angst as she described the challenges they experienced at home trying to encourage Britney, not only in her school work but in her emotional well-being. And I listened as Britney quietly expressed a deep desire for a different experience as she changed schools.

In our research, we have been studying "critical incidents", that is, experiences that shape and inform the perspectives and practices of principals. That transition team meeting was a critical incident for me. Even 25 years later, I can clearly see the room in which we met and the various people around the table. I distinctly recall the conversation. That experience would inform and frame my own work as a school administrator. It has also served as a catalyst for the research I have been engaged with for the past 10 years.

What does it mean to effectively lead schools to ensure that all students belong? Britney's experience in our school provides three insights.

First, our team of educational staff met regularly to discuss Britney's progress. Often these meetings involved Britney and family members. One office assistant had a very positive connection with Britney and would often attend these meetings. We insisted on a holistic, dynamic, and flexible approach that was responsive to her needs.

Second, we made a commitment to support Britney to the greatest degree possible in the classroom. This support was not at a separate table at the back of the classroom. She was fully included in all aspects of the class including in a peer-to-peer support program that encouraged students to identify and use their strengths to foster a healthy school community. And when individual help was needed in the class, classroom teachers and support workers coordinated as a team so that every student could have access to that support.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we strove to engage Britney - and every other student - in activities outside of the class. For Britney, this included being involved in an annual musical production and supporting a school drama production in which she helped manage the sets. Britney shone in these activities and her circle of friends grew. Belonging is fostered through relationships which often are strengthened in out-of-class activities.

So what does this all have to do with leadership? Effective schools leaders have guiding beliefs that drive their practices. Their perspectives shape their practices. If a principal is committed to "lead to include" then they will be more apt to actually implement, support, model, and nurture practices which foster classrooms and schools where all students belong.

Britney attended our school for Grade 7 and 8 and then transitioned to high school. Occasionally, I would run into her or her family over the next few years. Although there were definitely challenges at our school and in her high school experience, the trajectory that began at the transition meeting enabled Britney to successfully complete high school and embark on a career she found rewarding. I tell of a similar experience, "Who is your Nathalia?" in Principal Connections, a magazine for principals in Ontario.

Principals have enormous capacity to foster healthy, supportive, inclusive schools. For more resources that can support leadership competencies in this journey, please see the resources we have provided on our research website.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Re-tooling teacher professional development: The pandemic as a catalyst for change

Normally at this time of the year, our Educator and Leadership Institutes would be in full swing. By the middle of July, we would have completed a full week of training in Nepal, a weekend of intensive leadership training in Haiti, and a week of in-class support for teachers in Egypt. We would have been doing last minute planning for the August ELI in Haiti with 600 teachers and 200 children participating. And this year, we were planning on a week of teacher training in Ethiopia during this very week.

None of these has taken place.

But we have discovered new and innovative ways to engage in teacher and principal professional development.

Our website (www.ELICollaboration.org) is currently being "re-tooled" to include dozens of easily accessible and free resources for educators around the world. We will be informing ELI participants  about these resources in the next few weeks to help them in their individual pursuit of learning.

We have received a small grant to develop a new online course that educators from anywhere in the world can complete. We anticipate having the course up and running before the start of the new school year.

Our Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) camp in Haiti is being re-imagined with the help of our Haitian university student leaders as we hope to provide children in northern Haiti with STEAM activities that they can do without gathering socially.

These are incredibly complex and challenging times. Educators around the world are struggling with what it means to teach in a pandemic. The big question that unites educators globally is: How can we provide opportunities for children to learn in a safe and supportive environment? Traditionally, the physical school environment has provided the structure to allow these opportunities. Take the building out of the equation and the challenges of teaching and learning escalate, particularly in parts of the world that cannot easily, reliably, or cheaply access the Internet. I've written about how the pandemic has exacerbated the educational divide.

But that doesn't have to be the end of the story. I've also written about innovative leadership in challenging contexts such as Haiti. Creative principals and teachers CAN make a difference in the midst of a pandemic, both in local and global contexts.

I've written a lot about "critical incidents" as catalysts for change. We all experience these types of situations that, in hindsight, we see as having changed a particular direction or trajectory in our personal or professional lives.

The pandemic is a critical incident on a scale the world has not seen in many years. For ELI, it has led to some disappointment but it has also served as a catalyst to re-focus on how we can engage in collaborative professional development ... from a distance.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The devastation of the coronavirus: The global and the local seem very close and very far apart

The spread of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has been devastating. Schools have been closed, businesses deeply impacted, and many lives have been lost. Individuals are experiencing debilitating anxiety and profound loss. The pandemic is having a world-wide impact and many global communities are experiencing similar challenges and outcomes.

In this way, the coronavirus has reminded us of the intense "proximity" of individuals and communities around the world. We are sharing in the same challenging experience.

Yet, at the same time, the divides which separate us are being made particularly clear through the pandemic.

A simple illustration can be found in my own university teaching. In my university context, as with many around the world, faculty are moving classes online. It's not an easy process to do this well and I've tried to take an approach that "does no harm" by minimizing the disruption to my students. I have access to incredible resources to make this happen. I have a laptop, high speed Internet, access to colleagues who can help me, and online resources that can help me in my online teaching.

At the same time, I've been reminded that moving classes online is a privilege that many do not share.

Locally, many of my students are struggling to access high speed Internet or library resources they need to work on projects. Globally, many of my faculty colleagues in contexts such as Haiti don't have access to the same resources and can't simply "go online."

The pandemic is shedding light on even more significant divides which exist globally: Who has money to buy basic supplies at times like this? Who doesn't? Who has access to health care? Who doesn't? What governments are able to provide a safety net to citizens? Which governments cannot?

As much as the concept of "glocal" is very important to me - after all, there is much solidarity we can demonstrate at times like this - it is also a reminder that the divides which exist in our own communities and globally are still profound.

By that I am deeply saddened, disturbed, and angry.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Haiti 10 years after the 2010 earthquake: Reflecting on justice and solidarity

I had been providing leadership courses for principals in Haiti, primarily in the Port au Prince area, for about five years before the January 12, 2010 earthquake struck. I was fairly familiar with the main roads, institutions, and geographical landmarks of the city. What I saw on the television screens the night of January 12 and in the days ahead did not look like the city that I had become increasingly familiar with.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the tragedy - both that which occurred in a few seconds on January 12 and that which has unfolded in the ten years since.

The response to the earthquake has been the subject of many, many articles, documentaries, and books. Three that I would recommend are:

1. Jacqueline Charles, correspondent with the Miami Herald
Read her 10th year anniversary series here: Haiti Earthquake: A Decade of Aftershocks

2. Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By
Image result for the big truck that went by

3. Paul Farmer's Haiti After the Earthquake
Image result for paul farmer haiti after the earthquake

I too have written extensively about Haiti, primarily documenting efforts to foster education in the country. This work has been published in books and scholarly journals but has also received a lot of attention through this blog (see this entry from October 23, 2019 as one example)

Ten years after the earthquake, Haiti continues to struggle. Some have called it a "failing state". But these types of terms fail in describing the complexities of Haiti.

An anniversary such as today provides an opportunity to join in solidarity with our Haitian friends and colleagues. It is a day to reflect on the injustices that have been perpetuated against many Haitians who deserve better.

It's also a day when we can commit to pursuing justice going forward.

One way we - Haitian and Canadian teachers - are striving to pursue justice is by working together to learn from each other and to support each other in improving our teaching practices. The Educator and Leadership Institute (ELI) provides a "meeting place" for where this learning and support can take place. Over 1,000 Haitian and Canadian teachers have participated in ELI in northern Haiti in the city of Cap-Haitien in the five years since it was established. At its core, ELI provides an opportunity for relationships to develop. Relationships are foundational to solidarity, to reciprocity, and ultimately to a commitment to social justice.

Today I will remember my friends and colleagues who have had their lives dramatically impacted by the 2010 earthquake. And I will reflect on how I can work for justice in solidarity with my Haitian teaching colleagues.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Being mindful of the "why" we are involved with international research partnerships for inclusive education

Magnus, Kimberly, TK, Jacqui, me
Last night our team had the opportunity to visit TK Azaglo and the NGO he began 10 years ago called Future of Africa (click here for the website).

The visit reminded me of the "why" behind our research partnership meetings over the past 10 days.

The "why" is plural. It's the children of Ghana ... and Canada. We are building research partnerships and developing research projects so that we can examine and then tell the story of why it is important that all children have access to equitable and inclusive schooling.

TK works with street kids in Accra. In doing so, he is not only working to meet their needs but is also building the capacity of the university student volunteers who meet every Friday and Saturday night as an outreach to the children.
Sign on the outside of the FOA building

We witnessed this capacity-building work last night as a dozen or more university students from across Africa (Ghana, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, and Zimbabwe) - all of whom attend an innovative university called Ashesi University in Ghana - met and interacted with children who live on the streets. They do this every Friday and Saturday night. Why? Because they want to make a difference.

Posted inside FOA
It was a powerful experience to observe - and interact with - both the university student volunteers and the kids. It reminded me that, despite radically different lived experiences, we share some basic aspects of humanity. Namely, we crave relationships and knowing that others believe in us.

In many ways, this parallels the work we do in supporting students with special education needs. Encouraging - and sometimes fighting for - their right to have their needs addressed in classrooms and schools with their peers begins when we engage in building healthy and supportive relationships and demonstrating our belief in their value.

As we wrap up this exploratory research trip, it was an important reminder to me to keep my focus on why we do what we do.

Friday, December 13, 2019

What does "partnership development" mean when it involves the Global North and the Global South? Avoiding new-colonial mindsets and practices

For more than a week, we have been meeting with different educational stakeholders in Ghana as we explore what inclusive education means and the types of resources needed to help teachers support students with disabilities and special education needs.

Picture taken at Ghana International School
Today, we wrapped up meetings with the Ghana Education Service (akin to Ministry of Education) and Ghana International School to discuss next steps in developing our partnership.

The goal of the Partnership Development Grants of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) - which has funded this study - is to engage potential partners in collaborative research projects. Today, we mapped out a number of potential directions our research partnership could take over the next few years. These included the possibility of working with experienced teachers, working with new teachers, working with those who are preparing to be teachers, or working with school heads to support their knowledge and resource development related to students with special education needs.

Our meetings with the Ghana Education Service (GES) have been illuminating. The director of the inclusive education unit has expressed some hesitation in the development of the partnership. She clearly wants to ensure that our work aligns with the strategic direction of the GES. She wants to prevent duplication of services. She has also indicated that she is concerned when organizations do work in Ghana but her department does not know about the research or receives a report about the research but without input from her department. These are legitimate issues and I really appreciate her attention to ensuring that the partnership is truly a partnership.
Picture taken at Ghana International School

In a way, she is expressing concern about a form of neo-colonialism in the research realm. We typically think of colonialism or neo-colonialism as being political, economic, and military-related when a particular government or group dominates and controls another group or region. But as researchers we have to be cautious that we are not perpetuating a form of neo-colonialism when we do research in the Global South in the name of "improvement" without fully and authentically engaging and working with local stakeholders.

One of the aspects of the SSHRC Partnership Development Grant program that I really value is that organizations have up to three years to foster the development of partnerships. This provides an opportunity for relationships to be fostered. Out of relationships comes the opportunity to demonstrate reciprocity and build trust. As we plan for further work in Ghana, these aspects will remain foundational as we look to build partnerships that can explore issues of real importance without perpetuating a neo-colonial mindset and practices.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

On-going learning about inclusive education in Ghana: Considering the perspectives of government officials, teachers, and parents

Today we completed a full day of focus groups with three different groups of educational stakeholders in Tamale, a city in northern Ghana:
  1. Officials from Ghana Education Service (similar to Ontario's Ministry of Education).
  2. Teachers and parents.
  3. Other stakeholders (e.g., private schools, NGOs)
We were particularly interested in hearing about three aspects of inclusive education:
  1. What does inclusive education mean to you?
  2. What policies guide your work in inclusive education?
  3. What experiences have you had in supporting students with special education needs and disabilities?

About 30 people participated in the focus groups. It was fascinating to listen to the insights and perspectives of the participants. Here are my "top 10" key lessons I learned:
  1. There seems to be a greater willingness to work with students with "mild" disabilities in the regular classroom. Students with more challenging disabilities were generally seen as needing the supports available in specialized, segregated schools.
  2. Many teachers had not heard of, never mind seen, the 2015 Ministry of Education policy document that is supposed to guide inclusive education in Ghana. There seems to be a large gap between policy and practice.
  3. Participants identified that one of the most significant challenges to inclusion is the pervasiveness of stigma associated with disability in Ghana.
  4. Resources are scarce and most schools do not have access to specialized support (e.g., special education resource teachers).
  5. Classes are large so it is difficult for teachers to focus on more significant individual student needs because of the breadth of needs in their classrooms.
  6. Training of teachers on inclusive education is sporadic and without monitoring/accountability structures to ensure that students with disabilities are included. Teachers would like more professional learning opportunities and on-going support.
  7. There is a recognition of a wide variety of needs. Specific disabilities that were discussed included physical disabilities, autism, mental disabilities, learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia), and intellectual disabilities.
  8. There is a lack of assessment/diagnostic resources aside from referring children and their families to hospitals or medical practitioners. The Swiss Red Cross has played a significant role in supporting interventions such as hearing assessments.
  9. Parents of children with disabilities expressed appreciation for caring teachers but also commented that there was a significant lack of resources to support their children in community schools.
  10. Participants were appreciative that this is the beginning of a three year study that includes developing training resources. Participants were looking for on-going engagement and not singular training events. 
There is much to learn about inclusive education in Ghana but the reciprocity in the learning journey today is a strong indicator that the future of our partnership development work in Ghana is healthy!