#Teaching&Learning, Early Career Framework, Preparing for Adulthood, Purpose, SEND

I am a teacher. I teach.

By Anita Devi

“I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.”
 Matt Groening

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the clichés “every teacher is a teacher of SEND” or “every leader is a leader of SEND”.  In this blog, I will share my thoughts on why and how these phrases do not align with my values or vision.  To clarify, SEND here represents children and young people with special educational needs and/ or a disability.  The alternative title, I pondered upon for this piece was ‘It’s an injustice!’ As a fourth year PhD student in Education and Social Justice, I have spent a fair amount of time unpacking the different facets of social justice.  I do not claim to be an expert in this area, but what I have learnt is social justice is complex.  It embraces the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  How this pans out in reality is another story and one that needs clarity on defining a state of social justice and the means to achieve it.

An ageless dialogue has been the debate between “I am, therefore, I think” and “I think, therefore I am”.  My own leaning based on my background in psychology, my experience and my beliefs is in the former:  I am, therefore, I think.  If we assume, thinking is the basis for being … then what happens when individuals have learning or cognitive difficulties?  Do they cease to exist?  Not at all.  So, what has this got to do with teaching?  Looking across sectors, the most successful people are those who are clear on their identity – who they are.  From a place who they are, emerges what and how they act.

In defining a culture for change, language matters …

Every teacher is a teacher of SEND

This is an assertion about the current state of play, positioned in the present tense.  So, it is not entirely accurate.  The reality is, not every teacher is.  The statement itself does qualify the quality of provision provided by teachers.  Does it meet needs?  Is provision fit-for-purpose?  More importantly, it implies students with SEND are a homogenous group.  They are not.  They are individuals, each with distinctive characteristics, unique journeys, and futures full of potential.   Does the phrase also imply that teachers are fully knowledgeable about SEND?

I have been involved in SEND and inclusion a long time and in a variety of roles.  I do not say ‘I’m a teacher of SEND’ … as there is always more to learn and know.  As practitioners, we should not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but I will find out’.  Saying ‘I am a teacher of SEND’ implies I know it all.  I do not.  What I do say is ‘I am a teacher.  I teach.’ That’s the foundation and implied within those two sentences is an invitation to ask, ‘Who do you teach?’  Professionally, I then have a moral purpose to reflect on whether I truly teach all children and young people in my care or am I selective?  By singling out ‘SEND’ as the focus of my teaching, I would be ‘pretending’ to be inclusive by being ‘exclusive’. A perverse injustice, surely?  Equally, I am aware there are specialist SEND teachers out there, who have extensively trained and researched a specific area or need.  That is different.  In my professional journey, I was at one point a local authority Specialist SEND Advisory Teacher for Cognition and Learning. It was a specialist role.

Some would argue the statement is aspirational – a desired state.  Does it truly reflect inclusivity and how do we know when we get there? The statement does not make it clear what actions and behaviours I would see and maybe for some, it creates an illusion of ‘I am there’.  The amount of inaccurate information around SEND on the internet has grown immensely over the years.  Individuals read a book / report and position themselves with a view. Suddenly they are leaders in the field!

Maybe a better way of expressing it would be “our aspirational vision is for all teachers to be responsive and inclusive of diverse needs”.  Not as sexy as ‘every teacher is a teacher of SEND’, but certainly much more wholesome and rooted in the reality of what is and what could be.

Focussing on being responsive brings in a quality element that can be evaluated.  Those who lead on SEND (at school / college level) can evaluate how responsive teachers are to diverse needs.  This is not about evaluating teacher performance, but about contribution to organisational goals on increasing inclusion and reducing exclusion.  The two are separate and interrelated dynamics.  However, reducing exclusion does not necessarily lead to an increase in inclusion and vice versa. At #TeamADL we have developed some structures, systems and solutions around this.  Maybe that’s a blog for another day?

Every Leader is a Leader of SEND

This is often cited as a motivational phrase.  However, just saying it does not mean things change.  As a consultant, I am generally called in when things are not working.  This is not about blame and shame.  The leaders have a maturity of perspective to recognise they need external input to align systems and structures to ensure all children and young people receive the educational experience, they are entitled to.  I have lost count of the number of times, I’ve walked into a school and a leader has said to me, “Every teacher is a teacher of SEND” and “Every leader is a leader of SEND”.  When I ask them what that means or looks like … they have no answer!  The children and young people we teach and the families we serve, deserve better than a few well-rehearsed catch phrases.

Effective leaders build diverse teams and come from a place of modelling good practice in their specialist field.  It is therefore helpful for those who lead on SEND to have experience on delivering effective SEND practice.  Otherwise, a lot of what is delivered is just theoretical knowledge.  SENCOs are required to undergo a specialist qualification, as part of their induction.  The content of this training is debatable and certainly my own research shows the courses lack pragmatism. Regulation 50 in the SEND Regulations 2014 defines the role of a SENCO.  I have written more about it here in relation to workload and assessment.  By repeating the mantra ‘every leader is a …”  we are undermining the role and value SENCOs play and we are not giving full credence to Regulation 50.   Like the cliché about teachers of SEND, stating every leader is a leader of SEND is inaccurate and does nothing to move us towards an aspiration of effective SEND leadership.

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

Postscript (February 2021)

I’m grateful for the feedback I have received from colleagues who have read this post. A significant number of those who contacted me, agreed. There were a few, who felt we should remain aspirational and use the cliches to advance a bigger agenda. If that were possible, the world would move forward through memes, perhaps?

Another type of justification for using these phrases was shared with me; namely legislation. The comment was made citing mainly points from Chapter 6 of the SEND Code of Practice 2015 and in particular 6.4 which relates to assessment and identification. I have written about assessment and differential diagnosis previously. Hearing the arguments put across in relation to my comments above, I gave it considered thought and I still stand by my comments above. Here are my three reasons why:

  1. There is a difference between a leader of SEND and a leader for SEND. Reading a few books, articles and journals on SEND, doesn’t make someone a leader. It comes through the attitude and experience of an individual to articulate a vision, based on a core set of values and then be positioned to drive diverse teams through a change process for improvement. A leader for SEND is an advocate, not an specialist or expert. We need to recognise and honour the difference.
  2. If non-specialist leaders are going to be FOR something that positions them in the equality and equity dialogue, then it needs rooted in the broader context of inclusion, embracing not only SEND, but also ethnic diversity, gender quality, etc.
  3. The principles in Section 19 of the Children and Families Act 2014 provide us a framework to evaluate whether a leader is FOR inclusion. So we do have a legislative basis to challenge wider leaders, not because they need to be experts. More importantly they need to be advocates operating from a core set of values.

To re-iterate the final paragraph of my original post:

Ultimately, our goal is to deliver an effective educational experience for all children that prepares them for their future and adulthood. Using these cliches – it is an injustice! … and I would politely ask those using these phrases to stop or refine them!

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About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.