However, this is just half of my job. The other half is described as ‘implementing inclusive practices’. I do this at the same primary school, making me a teacher with two very different roles in the same institution - not an easy task!
To give you some context, in Germany each state has its own school policy and different types of school are available. Hamburg praises itself on having a genuine inclusive practice policy, which states that all parents have the right to choose either a regular school or a special school for their children, inclusion being a student’s right - at least that’s the theory!
Unfortunately, the reality is that the authorities do not provide the necessary resources for schools to be able to implement inclusion in a beneficial way for all students.
So, what does that all mean for the individual school, teacher and student? Follow me along my day to find out.
I arrive at school, usually with a couple of pupils walking along with me as l live around the corner from the school, and get my first update of what’s been happening.
The first lesson starts - English with a group of 23 pupils from the third grade. Luckily there haven’t been any issues before the lesson, so we can start straight away. The students come from 10 different countries, some of them having fled countries like Syria or Afghanistan. One student has got such strong social, emotional and behavioural issues that he needs an assistant who is responsible just for him.
One of the students has got strong attention deficit disorder and turns aggressive towards other students when provoked, one has just come back from a stay in the psychiatry ward for 4 months because he has a very low frustration tolerance which can turn easily into aggressive behaviour against other pupils or even the teacher, and another student who has also a very low tolerance to frustration just starts verbally accusing others, sometimes becomes aggressive, although this not towards his teachers. Usually he withdraws and sits in his chair sulking. If I am lucky, the lesson goes smoothly.
Some strategies help:
- I try to keep the students described above apart from each other most of the time.
- I Intervene as soon as one of them uses bad language or starts provoking.
- The boy with attention deficit disorder is allowed to stand up and move around during the lesson, as long as he does not disturb other pupils. He is also able to leave the classroom and run around for three minutes when he’s being provoked, as this alleviates the desire to hit the pupil who is provoking him.
- The boy who has his own assistant reacts vey strongly to physical contact. When I have him close to me, putting a hand on his shoulder or even giving him a sideways hug, he calms down more easily. In some lessons, he seeks to stand or sit near me and then works well, or at least as much as he is able to.
- The main point is that I try to give each of them as much positive feedback as possible. Every time they avoid a conflict or back out, they are praised. When they have worked well in class they get a hand shake and a thank you for their good work in class. It’s very small steps but slowly I can see it working.
I am off to the next classroom to assist with a small group of pupils in one of the second-grade classes.
Two of the learners are behind with reading and writing as they have not been in Germany for very long. One student has a concentration deficit that allows him to focus for 5 min at most. Two pupils also have social and behavioural issues, one of whom has a tendency to provoke others.
Each classroom has a small room for group work attached, thus individual students or groups have a place to work which can still be overseen as it has got a glass front.
Coming into class I can hear the teacher shouting at a couple of pupils. It is Monday morning and her need to put them ‘in their place’ shows already. Luckily, the pupils who are shouted at are usually the ones who go with me to the small room, so I can try to show them that they are cared for.
I know that the other subject teachers have a different approach, but this often causes difficulties for some students as they struggle to adjust to the variation, but it is difficult to know what can be done about that. Below are some suggestions for an approach that can be adopted by all:
- Encourage students to use the freedom they have in other classes to actually learn in the way they enjoy.
- Differentiate tasks for the individual learners.
- Give positive feedback when they show good behaviour and actually finish the tasks they are supposed to do.
- Be positive, try to counterbalance negative vibes. Again, with most of them physical contact seems to be important. Just giving them a high-five can often be enough.
Break time! Half an hour to get a cup of tea and have the chance to talk about individual students or classes with colleagues. Sometimes it might end up with me renegotiating my schedule so that I can squeeze in another individual student, or another class. But it is also a chance to take a deep breath and get ready for the next class.
Time for one of my individual students. In October, we had a meeting with his class teacher, the school head and the social worker who has him in the after-school activities.
Because of his emotional, social and behavioural issues he needs to be taken out of class regularly to give the rest of the class a chance to learn. He has a strong attention deficit when in a group, but can focus for longer in a one-to-one situation. He is easily offended and reacts aggressively, either verbally or even physically. He is one of the few pupils I have actually had to hold down so he could not harm other pupils or himself. It took us three months to get him to the point where we could work reasonably well with him and where he was getting into trouble on fewer occasions. However, immediately after the two-week Christmas holiday, we were back to square one.
What do I do in my lessons with him?
- In coordination with his class teacher, I choose an area he needs help with (English, German, Mathematics…)
- He does not work under pressure, needs time and a lot of encouragement or ‘bribing’, so we usually end the lesson with a language or maths game when he has at least finished the core tasks.
- I give him time to talk about himself, listening to how he feels, what he likes and what is bothering him, trying to build some trust.
Another class with 23 pupils; another mix of children who all have very different needs, challenges, stories and wishes. How do I try to accommodate all of this without a teaching assistant?
- Make tasks physical, I include a lot of pronunciation practice where we jump, dance and play with our voices.
- Include down time, a short brain-break activity, meditation or physical activity.
- Monitor students individually. While they are working at their desks, go around and see if they are on task or need help. Do not wait for them to come to you.
- Regulate noise level. There are times when they need to be quiet, when they can whisper, and when they can talk and check with others.
- Have different tasks for different learners.
- Teach them to help each other without just giving the correct answers.
After another 30 min break the last lesson begins. It is a 60-minute lesson and by now some of the pupils are having a hard time getting through the day without getting into trouble.
I am sharing this lesson with the class teacher who had asked me for support as the class was becoming unmanageable. It was simply a case of the students being unruly – rather, the way they were behaving towards each other in an anti-social way was worse than any other group throughout the entire school.
Consequently, we decided to use the time normally spent studying RE (Religious Education) to focus on social skills. Below is a list of some of the things have we covered so far:
- Discussing situations that make them angry and how to cope and/or react to them.
- Talking about our dreams and wishes, and how to achieve them.
- Talking about feelings and how behaviour and feeling are connected and influence our daily lives.
- We included meditation, stories and a lot of information about ourselves, including the teachers.
Not every lesson is a success story, but at least everyone has realised that we are moving things forward slowly.
There is still so much we need to do, but while we work in a context where resources are not available and teachers are left alone in very challenging situations, there really is no way to offer real, genuine inclusion – we can only do our best with the time we have, when we can and with minimal resources. I only trust that one day we might get there and be able to reach more children.
One final (and important) thought - there are nice moments! When a child comes up to you, smiles and asks ‘Can I have the lesson with you?’, or when the unruly class tells you they feel better together. These moments help to make it all worthwhile.