I knew I was going to be a teacher from a young age and I always knew that I would be a special education teacher. The notion of social justice and equity for every student came about once I was in the classroom. Firstly from that special education perspective, then from a social disadvantage perspective, a cultural, a race, and a minority perspective. The education system, it’s curriculum, teacher education programmes, the social norms, and hidden message were creating unnecessary barriers for so many students. And, I realised more and more, were some of the reasons I hated school so much myself. I wanted to break down these barriers, celebrate the potential of every student in my class and school, let them feel seen and supported, and help them believe in themselves. It has been a winding journey that has taken me out of the classroom at times, but regardless of where I ma and what I am doing I’m always a teacher first.
I started out as a substitute teacher in a post-primary school in a socially disadvantaged area in Dublin. And as much as I loved my teacher education, I was not prepared! On my first day, the students locked us in the classroom because they didn’t want to go to maths (flashbacks right now of me climbing out the window). In those first weeks they threw chocolate at me, screamed at me, walked out of class or didn’t turn up at all. Text books were pointless and I struggled some days to see the potential. But with time, imagination, and showing these students I cared we grew together, learned together, and earned each other’s respect. From here, I moved to different special education settings. In the absence of accessible curriculum I developed programmes to develop students’ skills for life. After a few years I found myself back in the area of social disadvantage. As a School Completion Programme Co-ordinator, I had the opportunity to work with students at risk and with their parents. I had the space to develop creative programmes to support students, parents and teachers. I explored art and play therapy as alternative ways to offer students a way to communicate and heal. Summer and Easter camps offered continuity and routine for students during the holidays while also providing fun learning and social opportunities for them. And the best part for me was that I got to share the journey with some of these children from their first day in primary school to their graduation from post-primary school.
During these years as a SCP Coordinator, I was involved in the development of an Autism Class in my post-primary school. With a vision to turn this into an inclusive resource for every student the team created a central space in the school where the students in the class would be supported to participate in mainstream classes with their peers. And after two years of planning I was teaching in the Autism Class. Based in a DEIS school, there were plenty of students who needed support, encouragement and people to believe in them and the plan was to provide this disability or not. The Autism class, simply called Room 8, became the ‘go to’ place for help, some time out, and even a cup of tea and a chat. It was an open door space where students came and went. And it was where I first explored UDL.
My learning and teaching experiences in this school changed me as a teacher and a person. I started to look outside the classroom and school at the ‘big picture’. I became an Associate with Junior Cycle for Teachers for Level 2 Learning Programmes where I had the opportunity to work on one of the first CPD sessions to include UDL. I was seconded within my ETB to work as an SEN Development Officer and designed a SEN Tooklit for the organisation as well as delivering training and supporting schools. And then an email telling me about a job at curriculum and assessment level led me to where I am now, the Education Officer for Inclusive Education and Diversity with the National council for Curriculum Assessment. Here, I get to challenge and be challenged in the area of inclusive education at a national level. In addition to working with colleagues to develop inclusive curriculum from early childhood to post-primary, I work with students, teachers, and parents. I hear their voice, their stories. I learn from them. And, I hope together that we are creating a more equitable curriculum for every child in Ireland.