Enhancing pre-service teachers' understanding of diversity, inclusive education and wellbeing through a collaborative special education immersion project

Year: 2013

Author: Bentley-Williams, Robyn, Long, Janette, Grima-Farrell, Christine, Laws, Cath

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Diversity is a complex notion that underpins the role of inclusive educators, particularly early career and pre-service teachers, as they endeavour to cater for learners of different race, ethnicity, gender and disability. Earlier research on special education teacher retention found that stage of development consistently linked to attrition in special education and teachers in their first years of teaching were more likely to leave (de Boer, Pijl, & Minnaert, 2011). This new Special Education Immersion Project commenced in 2012 and was informed by ideas of what it means to be an inclusive teacher of students with disabilities and diverse learning needs. An inclusive education approach considers all students as learners with equal rights and a diversity of needs (Ashman & Elkins, 2012). While society in general has become more accepting of diversity among people (Pohan & Aguilar, 2001), pre-service teachers typically struggle in understanding their multi-faceted role in teaching learners with diverse needs.
The Special Education Immersion Project was a collaborative university and school system partnership. It aimed to support students with disabilities in selected schools through providing final year pre-service teachers in the Bachelor of Education Primary course with a sustained special and inclusive education teaching experience. A qualitative multi-site case study method (Stake, 2000) and interpretative approach was used to examine the richness of the participants' reflections on their unique lived experiences in the Project. Ten Participating Teachers and nine School Leaders, consisting of both Principals and School Mentors, participated in the research in five Catholic primary schools. The research design was interpretative and data collection was gathered through pre and post surveys and semi-structured interviews with the nine School Leaders and ten Participating Teachers during arranged school visits by a member of the research team.
The Participating Teachers' comments regarding the challenges of teaching divulged a range of insights and emotional reactions. Their perspectives identified a growing awareness of the diverse role of teaching and the demands teaching places on practitioners. The findings presented from the Special Education Immersion Project revealed that real whole school professional experiences for Participating Teachers and opportunities to work with School Mentors in catering for students with disabilities, made an overall positive impact on them and on the wider school community. The five selected schools provided occasions for Participating Teachers to be integrated into the whole school life and enabled a genuine sense of belonging. The insights from this research may guide others in investigating better understandings of diversity, inclusive education and wellbeing in school contexts.