Narratives of Inclusive Teaching

Stories of <i>Becoming</i> in the Field

by Srikala Naraian (Author) Sarah L. Schlessinger (Author)
©2021 Textbook XII, 166 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 25


Teachers are increasingly challenged by dilemmas of practice as they negotiate their commitments to equity for students from historically marginalized communities, including students with disabilities, against the demands of their school settings. This book seeks to understand the ways in which teachers’ engagements with their schooling contexts evoke varied forms of inclusive practice. It narrates the experiences of seven novice teachers who entered the field deeply committed to inclusive practice. It documents their conflicts, joys and struggles within the collectivities in which they were embedded. In doing thus, the book discloses the many unpredictable trajectories of practice that encompass the complex work of teaching for inclusion.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One A Male Teacher of Color: Filling the Void with Taiyo Ebato
  • Chapter Two Negotiating the Cruel Optimisms of Inclusivity with Molly Goodell
  • Chapter Three Recognizing Success, Deferring Competence with Peter Reitzfeld
  • Chapter Four Stories of a Feminist Killjoy Inclusive Educator with Harley Jones
  • Chapter Five A Dystopian Tale with Jessica Ewing
  • Chapter Six Searching for an Activist-Educator Self: Towards a DisCrit Classroom Ecology with Adam Kuranishi
  • Chapter Seven Absurdities and Contradictions: Teaching against Oneself with Rena Matsushita
  • Reflections on Agentive Maneuverings
  • Index

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Many people and places must share in the completion of this book. We are grateful that the institutional location of Teachers College was available as a convenient site to meet with our teacher-graduate-participants whose experiences we have narrated in this book. We appreciated the opportunity to welcome them back into this location where conversations about theory and practice could take new form in light of their recent experiences as certified teachers. Our professional roles (past and present) within the Department of Curriculum and Teaching and in the programs for Inclusive Education provided the opportunity to meet students with shared commitments to social justice for marginalized youth. Most importantly, we owe our heartfelt thanks to Taiyo, Rena, Peter, Molly, Jessica, Harley and Adam, without whose generous interest in our research and willing participation in the study, this book would not have been possible. Their words, emotions, musings, aspirations, and commitments have significantly shifted the ways we think about inclusion and teacher education for inclusion. We have been changed because of them.

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As I continue to build and grow my understandings and practices of inclusivity, I, Sarah, am grateful to the many teachers and students that I work with who continue to push me to stretch my theory and practice. My perspective grows through our conversations and shared experiences. I am particularly grateful to Celia Oyler for grounding me in the greater purpose of this work and mentoring me into the worlds of inclusivity and academia. Her mentorship and my membership in the inclusive education community at Teachers College allowed me to make some sense of the inequities in education I had seen as a classroom teacher. Within that community, I am particularly grateful to Srikala Naraian, a mentor, colleague, and a friend who, with unparalleled kindness and patience, continues to help me negotiate my work as a researcher in the field of Disability Studies in Education. I owe much of my understanding of the complexities of inclusive education to these two women. I would also like to thank my family for instilling in me a deep belief in the pursuit of knowledge. To my parents, thank you both for your own commitments to equity and social justice and your willingness to listen to me jabber on about inclusive education. Finally, to my amazing wife, Jamie, who chose to marry me in the midst of my writing anxiety for this book, thank you for partnering me with your perspective, knowledge, thoughtfulness, criticality, strength and unwavering support.

Research and writing is never a solitary endeavor. I, Srikala, am grateful for the numerous ways in which my students continually compel me to clarify my thinking and to seek opportunities alongside them to deepen what we know about inclusive education and how we come to know it. Additionally, I could not sustain my scholarly pursuits without the generous encouragement from colleagues and mentors both within and outside Teachers College, within and outside the US. Their faith in my scholarship has permitted, in significant measure, the risks I have been able to take when delivering some of the insights we have been able to include in this book. As always, I am grateful for the quietly proud support extended by my daughter, Maegha, and for the opportunity to live and work in a city which not only presents visceral challenges to inclusivity everyday but also demands real-time response(s) that must congeal with its aspirations.

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We thank the team at Peter Lang Publishing for supporting us in bringing this project to fruition and to Susan Gabel and Scot Danforth, editors of the Disability Studies in Education series, within which this book could find a ready home. Their commitments allows us to continue to pursue our own. Inclusive of Scot and Susan, we extend our gratitude to the Disability Studies in Education community and the platform we collectively create to question the system as it is.

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Many researchers in the field of disability studies in education, including ourselves, are engaged in teacher education programs that require both coursework and fieldwork (student teaching or practica). Such experiences generally call for ongoing relationships with practicing teachers, negotiation with school partners, encounters with state licensure systems, and familiarity with accountability procedures in schools. Preparing teachers for inclusion is embedded within this assemblage of social activity that has, for us, inevitably come to inform the conceptualization of inclusion itself. Our struggle as researchers and teacher educators has been to reconcile this process with our commitment to the equitable education of students with disabilities1 that we brought to this work in the first place. This book is our attempt to explore that struggle.

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As scholars situated within a disability studies tradition, we are first and foremost unequivocally committed to emancipatory modes of practice that understand disability not as a problem or a deficit within a person, but as emergent within the interactions of individuals with social, cultural, political and legal institutions in society. Our work as teacher educators is grounded in this fundamental commitment to the recognition of disability as a valued form of human variation that requires a vigilant monitoring of the ideology of ability which circulates within school systems, categorizing some populations as incompetent or deficient. Teachers, we remind our students and ourselves, must recognize how social, physical and attitudinal barriers produce disability, and should respond actively to mitigate their debilitating effects on individuals, in this case, students in schools. Yet, our experiences over the years with our own students (teacher candidates) as well as our investigations of teacher practices in schools have demanded that we articulate a more complex position. Repeatedly, our students and teacher-participants in our studies have shown us that the work of teaching for inclusion is complex, often contradictory, and sometimes defies the priorities brought by disability studies scholars (Naraian, 2017; Naraian & Schlessinger, 2017). We have found that there are few visible markers of practice that can be unequivocally asserted as necessary for inclusion at all times or everywhere.

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This poses particular dilemmas for us as we prepare new teachers for this work. While we now know that teaching for inclusion is a continuous, unfinished process (Booth, 2009), we simultaneously assert that there is much about becoming an inclusive educator that remains unknown. For instance, in what ways does a critical awareness of the ableist, racist, gendered and classist underpinnings of a school system come to inform the professional growth and development of an educator? How do teacher candidates draw on the idealized vision of schooling for equity and social justice to make decisions about what they will teach, to whom, how, and when? These questions are necessary not only to prepare candidates most effectively for this work, but also to continually monitor how we ourselves, as teacher educators, conceptualize inclusion. Our focus, in this book, therefore, is to document a segment of this process of becoming an inclusive educator, namely, the early stages of entry into the field. The question we have taken up in this book is: How do novice teachers prepared in higher education settings for inclusive practices begin to construct their professional identities within the context of their schools? We hope that this will ultimately deepen our understandings of inclusion and inclusive practice and our preparation and support of novice teachers.

(Re)storying Teachers, Recognizing Agency

The premise of this book, then, is that the stories that teachers tell are important both to understand the phenomenon of inclusion, as well as to conceptualize how teachers come to understand themselves. We expect that teachers’ sense-making efforts will give us deeper clues into the meanings of inclusion within schools. We simultaneously recognize such sense-making to be grounded in the material contexts of practice, indeed as inseparable from them. In that regard, we do not categorize these teachers as heroic, passive, compliant or negligent. Instead, we understand teachers’ agency for inclusion to be situated and as emergent from the interplay of biographical and material-discursive contextual elements that collectively create the conditions within which inclusive practice is enacted (Danforth & Naraian, 2015). As we navigate through different intellectual traditions (described later in this chapter) we find ourselves continually refining and demystifying such situatedness. We have gradually come to understand that our efforts to do so both preserve and challenge the centrality of the teacher figure in this phenomenon. While this has provoked some unease, it has also stimulated us to adopt a “jumping and straddling” of epistemological positions (Ellingson, 2011). We will explain this further in subsequent pages. But first, we begin with our primary commitment to teacher stories.

The Significance of Teachers’ Stories

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Teachers typically bring a continual, unending stream of stories to share about their students, their interactions with colleagues, with families and with community members. They share stories about curriculum-making and the texts that affect their students and their classroom communities. They overflow with stories about students’ interactions with each other, with texts and with other adults in the community. They are filled with stories about administrative and bureaucratic decisions that produce success or failure for their students and for themselves. Listening to teachers, we come to understand the beliefs and assumptions that animate their work, the struggles they uphold, the conditions they find supportive, the vulnerabilities they bear, and the successes and constraints they experience. “Exploring this multifaceted knowledge more fully through attention to the way that teachers’ stories are told, their language and imagery, their drama or repetitiveness, one can disclose the underlying conceptualizations and reconceptualizations of the educational situation and come to a better understanding of how teachers do their work and why” (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2005, p. ix). Understanding how and why teachers take up inclusive practices, we additionally argue, can help us refine our understandings of inclusion itself.

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The privileging of stories itself is premised on distinguishing between multiple modes of thinking. Narrative researchers Clandinin and Connelly (2000) describe a distinction between thinking narratively and thinking formalistically. Thinking narratively about the experiences of individuals and communities is to understand events as continuous with other experiences across time; to recognize people as engaged in a process of change; to perceive the meanings of action not as self-evident but as expression of other narrative histories; to remain cognizant that interpretations of actions/events are always subject to change, and are necessarily characterized by tentativeness rather than certainty; and, to recognize the centrality of context in interpreting people’s lives and the inevitable situatedness of actions and intentional states that are not readily predictable (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Stone-Mediatore, 2000). The formalistic approach, on the other hand, relies on the frameworks we bring to assess what things are and how they can be different. Conversely, “it is a view that things are never what they are but are rather what our framework or points of view or perspective or outlook makes of them” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 39). Inevitably, for inclusive education researchers, these forms of thinking produce sites of significant tension. When we observe teachers engage in practice that, from a critical disability studies lens, suggests ableist norms, we are likely to interpret such teaching as problematic and as defeating the aims of inclusion. Narrative thinking, however, requires that we remain open to the possibility of other interpretations; we are called to monitor our own narrative histories when working at the site of these tensions.

Narrative knowing begins with the stories that are told by people. In doing thus, it upholds individual agency as significant for understanding experience. Some scholars argue that representations of experience that portray the subject as the primary agent are misleading because they obscure the discursive context that make available particular forms of actions and thought. Experience, they argue, cannot exist outside the discourses used to represent it (Scott, 2014). Others, however, have noted the power of narratives to disclose the historical-material conditions within which experiences are formed as well as the potential for alternative ways of being/thinking implicit within stories that may be unavailable in larger, widely circulating stories (Moya, 2000; Stone-Mediatore, 2000). We orient towards the latter position; in privileging experience via narrative, we recognize the narrative experience as epistemically significant for generating important theoretical knowledge.


XII, 166
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Srikala Naraian (Author) Sarah L. Schlessinger (Author)

Srikala Naraian is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University and Program Director of the Elementary Inclusive Education Program. She is the author of Teaching for Inclusion: Eight Principles for Effective and Equitable Practice. Sarah L. Schlessinger is Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education Long Island University–Brooklyn and Program Coordinator of the Adolescent and Childhood Special Education Programs.


Title: Narratives of Inclusive Teaching
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180 pages