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Becoming a Great Inclusive Educator


Scot Danforth

Inclusive education continues to grow in popularity and acceptance in the United States. However, most teachers – general and special educators – are poorly prepared to be successful in inclusive classrooms and schools. Undoubtedly, the challenge to professionals involves the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. But inclusion requires far more. It calls upon educators to trouble everything they think they know about disability, to question their deepest ethical commitments, to take up the work of the Disability Rights Movement in the public schools, and to leap headlong into the deepest waters of the rich craft tradition of inclusive teaching. This book offers educators the guidance and resources to become great inclusive educators by engaging in a powerful process of personal and professional transformation.
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Chapter 15: Spilt Milk Counts: Belonging and Moving on Down the Hall

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Spilt Milk Counts: Belonging and Moving on Down the Hall


As a student services (resource) teacher, I was co-teaching in the grade 1 classroom one day; the classroom teacher had stepped out. Then … boom! Bang! Crash! Stomp! What just happened? In that adrenaline-filled instant, I paused—or froze; I shuttered slightly. I had asked a student to check out a library book, which somehow resulted in flying chairs, tipping desks, and screaming: “I hate this school, I hate these teachers, I hate it all.” In that moment, time stopped tersely, unexpectedly and unabashedly. I suddenly heard my heart beating inside my head—a baffling though perhaps predictable occurrence. Strangely and almost unknowingly, I felt like I had super powers—the unbelievable kind, like I could foster an invisible force field or morph my body or kinetically charge my brain: I needed to quickly make countless classroom decisions. Time was sprinting. I found ways to keep the other students safe while simultaneously somehow continuing a lesson. Still in this simultaneity, I distracted the aggravated booming, banging, crashing, stomping student Clark, and attempted to convince him to come to a safe area to attempt to calm down. I made many, many decisions in this strange time contortion—and yet the booming, banging, crashing and stomping continued.

On this day in this moment of confusing simultaneities, I thought of my co-teaching partner, the classroom teacher. Where was she? How might I contact her? I also thought of Bill. Could he be the distraction I needed in this crisis? ← 221 | 222 → Looking at the clock it was 11:50. Shortly, a student would be coming to the grade 1 room to deliver the milk for lunch time. I hoped and prayed it would be Bill on this day. Thump, thump, thump. My heart raced. Suddenly, the door opened. It was Bill!

Bill is one of the grade 5 students who regularly and eagerly volunteers for the school milk delivery. The job encompasses picking up the order from the front office, counting the requisite cartons, and delivering them to each classroom, all before the lunch bell. Although our rural Saskatchewan school is of modest size, there are more than 170 students, so one person doing milk delivery for the entire school is physically challenging. Bill does not seem to mind, indeed he cheerfully distributes the cartons, and I look forward to the days when he enters the classroom. And today, I was especially appreciative of his smiling and stalwart reliability. As he came into the frenzied, frazzled space with his heavy crate of milk boxes, I rushed to him for help. Without hesitation he agreed. I asked him if Clark, our student currently booming, banging, crashing and stomping, could accompany him to finish the remaining deliveries together. Bill intuitively went over and with a soft, gentle, and comforting voice, told Clark he needed to calm down just a little in order to help drop off the milk. Clark, with his face still scarlet and still catching his breath, said nothing. Nothing. My heart spoke audibly, thump, thump, thump. Hundreds of thoughts fleetingly flew through my mind: How mad is Clark exactly? Will he run away? Are the other children safe? Clark is new to the school … what do I know about Clark? I had been warned by the previous school that he may have explosive episodes … what will he do now? What will he do now? Will this work? Will he go with Bill? I watched; I watched … as he … as he …

He went with Bill! Without a word or even a sound, Clark walked out into the long hallway with its old linoleum tiles; he waited as he watched Bill grab a milk crate, then he grabbed one himself. Clark’s breathing became less intense and more natural, his flushed face nonchalantly regaining composure. They continued on to the next classroom. I saw the heavy cart roll languidly down the hallway as they gently pushed it along. I was stunned. Time resumed, although it did so with great reluctance—it began with a stalled creeping as though it pondered each movie frame before advancing to the next. Thump … thump … thump. My heart rate returned to normal, although that too seemed like a struggle. Despite our school’s small size, I have always felt the hallway’s length as slightly claustrophobic, but not today. Today, I felt the expansiveness of it—as wide and as open as the Saskatchewan prairie itself. Relief.

Bill has such a calm, relaxed manner with younger students. Busy with dodge ball or soccer as all grade 5s are at recess, Bill still manages some time, now and ← 222 | 223 → then, to talk or play with them. The children adore him. He is a natural leader. As I continued to watch Bill and Clark slowly roll the cart from classroom to classroom, and as I regained my inner composure, I wondered how we could encourage this natural friendship-mentorship between Bill and Clark.

Clark has many issues, perhaps the most burning one is the loss of his own school that had recently closed in the neighboring small town; Clark was in mourning. Indeed, Clark was one of many new students this year at Flowerville Elementary; there was much mourning. Closing schools is not uncommon here on the rural Canadian prairies, and no matter how prepared, advised, and forewarned a community may be, it always seems to happen abruptly. Closures are especially acute in rural places where the school is often the activity hub—and more significant than that, it is the town’s thermometer, measuring and proclaiming the community’s health and viability. As the school goes, so the community goes. This school closure was that of a First Nations’ band school; the center of this neighboring reserve where the cultural and spiritual teachings of aboriginal people (or First Nations) were taught and experienced. The collective experience of loss weighed particularly heavy on Clark and his peers. His was a cultural loss.

Students, staff, and parents were working through this fast-moving change: one school closed, another one inflated. Indeed, it was common to hear the new and displaced students mutter, “I miss our school. I don’t like this school.” The staff at Flowerville Elementary felt how deeply challenging this change was—certainly, more than a simple change of venue. And seemingly at the core of this change was Clark.

After school, a few staff members and I gathered in my classroom. Certainly, we needed to figure out how to support Clark but also how to support all the children from the closed school. Perhaps not coincidentally, we had previously planned to meet to discuss a myriad of (mostly behavioral) concerns coming my way. To use the student support (resource) teacher, clinical language, the grade 1 class had many diverse learning, social, and behavioral needs. Six students had an individual education plan (IEP), two of which held the highest designation of intensive needs as defined by our Ministry of Education. At any other official meeting, we would meet around my large round table, let loose our frustrations, discuss and brainstorm solutions, and create an action plan. Ideally, everyone would feel ready to address the concerns—some short-term, some long-term goals and strategies identified. Luckily, we are a cohesive staff.

However, this day was different; we sat in silence—no appetite or energy even for venting. We held our heads in our hands while some descended onto the couch, another reclined into the boneless, overstuffed chair; a colleague even managed ← 223 | 224 → to slouch into the hard spindled-back rocking chair. Couches and comfy chairs just seemed more appropriate than my official conference table for this meeting. As I gazed about, I took inventory of the expertise around me: the classroom teacher has her master’s degree and more than twenty years’ teaching experience; my administrator, though only in her second year as principal, also had more than twenty years of teaching experience; the registered social worker with five years’ experience in this school and a great rapport with students; and myself, a student services teacher currently in her seventh year teaching. What were we to do for Clark? What were we to do with the classroom of grade 1 students, many of whom were viscerally experiencing loss?

Despite these credentials and experience, the team seemed lost and overwhelmed. No one had spoken in quite some time. I was thinking about Bill and Clark; perhaps surprisingly, the image of them walking down that antiquated hall together was the highlight of the day. I was so proud of Bill for taking the leadership role when I desperately needed him. He helped out in a way that none of us could. Finally, I broke the silence and spoke; my voice seemed to bring the group out of its acquiescent trance. I shared the story of Bill taking Clark on his milk delivery and how Clark’s face beamed brightly when he came back for lunch. The classroom teacher commented that the afternoon had gone better for Clark, and I wondered if it had been because of the experience. Clark seemed to feel a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, even if it were for but a few minutes. This sparked the conversation about belonging and the circle of courage (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2002), a First Nations inspired curricular concept and practice about which we recently learned.

The circle of courage consists of four domains: sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. If one domain is not being addressed for a child, it can lead to discouragement—a feeling with which we were all too familiar. As a group we knew that Clark and many of his peers were feeling discouraged; plainly and obviously stated, school did not provide a sense of belonging. At best some students probably felt like visitors—at worst, as exiled refuges in a strange land—a land that was a larger building that housed many new faces. Who were these newly displaced students? What was their connection to this building? To this community? How was their culture reflected in this school? Where were their teachers? What does a sense of belonging mean when these students ride a bus past their abandoned school every day, with its once familiar teachers and routines, to a new school with unfamiliar teachers and routines?

We realized as a group that we needed to revitalize, re-invent, re-create our school’s culture; we needed to be inclusive from our very grassland roots. We required input from all students and parents, new and old. We wondered what ← 224 | 225 → students, parents, and guardians wanted their school to look like? Feel like? Sound like? To create an inclusive and welcoming school, we knew we needed to act more inclusive and welcoming.

We instituted student consultation pods. These were multigraded groups of roughly twelve students each, and included a staff member to assist the student facilitators. The pods provided an opportunity for all students to learn from one another in a peer-directed activity. The sixth-grade leaders facilitated what we called the “virtues sessions” (they had been previously trained how to do this). For example, a grade 6 student might explain the golden rule to the children. They might then ask the younger students for examples of what the golden rule looks like, sounds like, or feels like. The grade 6 students would record their responses on a giant pledge poster. At the conclusion of these virtue sessions, all students in that virtue group would sign the poster, pledging that they would follow, for example, the golden rule. We were specific, we asked: What would a sense of belonging look like? What would generosity sound like? What does it mean to be independent, and how might it feel like, look like, for different students?

At the same time, we began reintroducing our bucket wish list; we are a “bucket-filling” school (see Each student has an invisible bucket that must feel full to support that sense of belonging. We filled their buckets with compliments and praise and favorite activities; we also taught students to fill the buckets of their peers. We taught many little things, such as saying hello, holding the door, helping someone in need, asking someone to play, telling your mom or dad you love them, hugging your grandmother, and so forth. We challenged students to think about whether they were dipping or dumping others’ buckets. We decided we would re-examine this concept schoolwide, as a social skill lesson to each grade.

As we were instituting these schoolwide efforts to foster inclusivity, the school-based team also drew its concern back to Clark. Where was his place here? What was his role here? Certainly, there was a connection between Clark and Bill; we agreed to foster it. We could at least begin there. In fact, Bill was sort of new to the school too—having moved into it only two years ago— maybe he could relate to Clark’s situation. If this acquaintanceship were to bloom into a friendship, Clark may feel connected, may feel like he has a place, and may feel like he belonged. We would begin to put things in place tomorrow.

The next morning, consistent with best practice, we prepared Clark for the change that would happen before lunch; starting today, he was helping with milk delivery. We arranged for that student to be Bill again today. Clark helped attach the new milk delivery picture to his visual schedule. He counted how many ← 225 | 226 → changes would occur before Bill came to pick him up. A few times that morning he asked if it were time. We pointed to his schedule, and aloud, he would re-tally the changes remaining until Bill arrived. Then, right on time, Bill arrived. Grinning from ear to ear when he saw Clark, he asked him if he was ready to learn where they kept the milk. Clark’s eyes lit up, he nodded, and followed Bill out of the grade 1 classroom. Though Bill was small for his age, he towered over Clark. They walked down the hall together as if they had done so for years.

As I watched them leave the classroom, I had a satisfied ease—one of those brief time snippets where somehow everything feels right. I paused, and in my reverie, I was sure I heard the voice of a First Nations elder speaking through Bill. Bill engaged Clark in conversation as they walked.

“What was all that mess about in your room yesterday?” Bill asked Clark.

“I dunno … what mess?” Clark responded looking down.

“The chairs pushed down and the desks on the ground,” Bill restated.

“I dunno … I was mad,” Clark bashfully responded.

“You can’t do that here. You get in trouble. You gotta do what they tell you.”

“I don’t gotta do nothing,” Clark said strongly.

“Well, you don’t get money for making a mess,” Bill stated simply.

“Money?” Clark’s eyes gazed up at Bill.

“Ya … for the store,” Bill explained.

“The Store? What store?” Clark questioned.

“When you do what they tell you to, you get money for your store. You get it for doing your jobs good,” Bill continued.

“Your jobs?” Clark asked.

“Yeah … like milk. If you do good, you get two bucks. ’Cause it’s a big job. Or straightening up the computer lab. You can get money for that too. And then you put your money in your bank until the store is open,” Bill stated.

“I want money for the store,” Clark squealed.

“Ask your teacher,” said Bill.

Hearing this conversation, I quickly grabbed a plastic baggie and wrote “Clark” on the front in big red letters so it would be on his desk when he returned. Next to it, I placed a plastic toonie from the math manipulatives bucket. When Clark came back, he quickly noticed the baggie and the coin. He grinned as he looked up at me. “This is to start your bank,” I stated, “you did a great job delivering milk today, so you earned two dollars for your bank. When you earn more money, we can go to the store in my room and shop.”

“Can I do another job?” Clark eagerly asked.

“First, it’s lunch, but after lunch (pointing at his schedule) we can do another job,” I explained.

← 226 | 227 →

“Will I get more money?” Bill questioned.

“If you do the job well you will,” I responded.

At lunch, I printed pictures of the store’s merchandise and with the requisite prices. I informed my staff that Clark was able to earn money for doing jobs around the school like other children. Additionally, scheduling these jobs as part of Clark’s daily routine provided him with much-needed movement breaks. We planned on a job right after lunch. Settling after lunch and recess was difficult for many students, but particularly for Clark. That afternoon, we ensured Clark earned enough money to buy something. We took him down to the store and showed him the menu of choices. He emptied his little baggie with his name proudly embossed and counted his coins. This was a challenge for him but he meticulously touched each coin as he rehearsed the amount aloud. He had earned five dollars. He selected candy as his choice from the store menu. I took the coins from his little hand and he ecstatically selected the candies he wished to purchase.

“Can I get more money?” Clark asked as he left the room.

“You sure can!” I responded. “Keep doing the jobs well and you will keep earning more money.”

Over the next few days, news of our school store was spreading in the grade 1 classroom. Another student, Greg, found out about the store from Clark and thought it would be a good thing for him, too. He needed breaks from his work and getting away from the stimulation that was the sounds and sights of the classroom calmed him right down. We decided in addition to scheduling opportunities for movement, we would also try the store concept with Greg. He would learn the life skills of money management, organization, and independence, all while getting the needed break.

Clark and Greg were more motivated to be at school to complete jobs and earn money. However, and perhaps predictably, problems began to arise; the boys only wanted to do jobs outside of the classroom and were beginning to miss the lessons inside the class. They also insisted on going to the store as soon as they had enough money, which we had permitted; however, the store seemed to becoming an avoidance tactic rather than an incentive to work hard.

I wondered about the store; were we simply bribing students to behave? Were we contributing to, or detracting from, students’ sense of belonging? Were we paying them to belong? Is that the lesson we were teaching? As I ruminated, I felt a presence behind me. Who could it be I wondered; the students were outside for recess? I turned around to find Bill glancing up at me. His cheeks were rosy but I could not help but notice his hands were pale, chapped, and a little worn.

← 227 | 228 →

“Hi Bill, why are you not outside for recess?” I questioned. I really was quite surprised to see Bill inside; although somewhat cold it was a blisteringly shiny prairie day.

Bill was silent; eventually his foot gently stammered. “I was just wondering if I could buy something from the store,” he said. Oh no, I thought, now Bill is avoiding activities too—even something fun like recess—because of the store. Perhaps the store is more of a hassle than it is helpful. “Bill, now is not a good time to go shopping; you need to be outside” I explained.

“Oh, well, I just wondered if you had any mitts at the store. I gave mine to Clark. I noticed he couldn’t hang on to the teeter-totter because his hands were too cold … so I gave him mine … but. …” His voice trailed off as he looked down toward the floor. How could I have doubted this noble child? Once again the leadership, empathy, and wisdom of this student amazed me. I guided him to my room where I kept a few extra pairs of mittens and gave him a pair “on the house.” He cheerfully smiled and scurried back outside for the remainder of recess.

A few minutes later the bell rang and I rushed to the doorway where I was to supervise the students coming inside. As the students walked in I noticed Clark, smiling and gazing down at his hands. He caught me looking at him and explained how much fun he had on the teeter-totter at recess; he commented that his old school did not have one and that it felt like flying. I could not help but smile as I thought about how Bill, ever the elder, was able to foster a sense of belonging for Clark. I moved to the boot room to oversee the transition in from recess and witnessed many older students assisting the younger students. I noticed relationships blossoming between the younger and older students and the new and existing students. It was starting to sound, look, and feel like the school they had envisioned.

A few days later, I smiled as I heard the children chatting away about the store and celebrating the successes of one another. The grade 1 children were living a kind of diversity and inclusivity a teacher can only dream of! And at 11:50, the door creaked open and Clark rushed toward it. Right on time, it was Bill. However, on this day Bill’s normally happy demeanor was instead concerned and worried. He frantically waved his hand, looking at me as if he needed me to come and talk to him. I went to the door to see what seemed to be bothering him. I gently indicated to Clark that he needed to wait a moment.

“Hi Bill. Did you need something?” I asked.

Bill looked down and then away from me. There was a notable awkward pause. “I dunno if I can do milk anymore,” he finally offered.

“Why not? You are doing such a great job and Clark is learning so much from you,” I questioned.

← 228 | 229 →

“I heard the milk prices are different soon and I can’t count that kinda money.” The look of concern grew on his face.

I suddenly remembered the struggle Bill had to learn the current pricings. I felt his fear. “Don’t worry Bill,” I said reassuringly, “You will learn new prices. Just think how difficult you thought these prices were, and you have those mastered. Your classroom teacher and I will make sure you have lots of practice in math class with the new numbers before the change happens.” Bill had not often shown doubt in his abilities, but as he got older he began to notice that his math skills were different than the other fifth graders. Although he was in a fifth grade class, his math program was comparable to Clark’s in grade 1. The jobs selected for Bill were created to help him build his money skills. Counting the milk each day was a challenge as he worked on one-to-one correspondence. He celebrated the day he was able to read the clock on his own; he knew when to leave to be on time for the milk delivery. He had demonstrated so much growth in his two years at the school. Now, he was able to continue to grow as the milk prices changed and all through this he could teach Clark the process. The worried look began to fade.

“Oh, okay. Can I start showing Clark how I take the milk orders?” Bill’s smile began to grow.

“Sure. Let’s figure out the new prices together and then you can teach Clark,” I suggested. They each nodded their heads and off they went together down the hallway. The teaching assistant followed the boys and caught my eye; we smiled at each other. I knew the smile was a reflection of the growth we had seen in both Bill and Clark. We were proud of the independence Bill had gained and the growing sense of belonging in Clark.

That day after school we met as a grade 1 team again. Heads were held higher I noticed as we sat around the large brown table. Sidebar conversations were aplenty as we waited for the meeting to begin. Shared stories and small giggles floated through the air. Things are coming along, I thought. Each day there are challenges and new obstacles we face with the demanding job that is inclusive education. However, we see growth in the students. Fewer meltdowns and longer time spent in the classroom. Better days for everyone. More belonging, more independence, more mastery, and more generosity. Who knew that cartons of milk, milk already contained, could fill so many buckets! We were all encouraged.

← 229 | 230 →

Probing Questions

• One might criticize Stacey for putting too much faith in one young boy (Bill) to provide assistance and counseling to a misbehaving young boy (Clark). But her actions make sense given her orientation to her school. What kind of community does Stacey envision in her school and how does that vision inform her actions?

• What concepts do the teachers utilize to drive their thinking about creating a community where students feel loved and supported? Are these the only conceptual underpinnings that a school might use for this purpose? What other useful ideas and practices do you know that teachers can use to build a caring community?

• At one point, Stacey questions whether the reward system and the school store contradict the school’s emphasis on relationships and community. She wonders, “Were we paying them to belong? Is that the lesson we were teaching?” What do you think?

• One can argue that the current climate of high stakes testing in the United States serves as a major obstacle to public schools having strong emphasis on social, emotional, and moral development evident in this Canadian elementary school. Or one can also make the opposite argument, that the emphasis on measured achievement in the United States makes the creation of a healthy, safe learning environment all the more crucial. What do you think?