Building capacities and capabilities: the role of learning support teachers

30 November, 2020

Teachers and school officers who specialise in supporting inclusive education for students with additional learning needs have key roles across all sectors of the Australian education system. IE journalist Jessica Willis talks to two IEU members and learning support teachers about what their role is and how they support school communities.

Sue Mitchell and Annette Campbell both hold the role of Support Teacher: Inclusive Education (ST:IE) in a Queensland Catholic primary and secondary school respectively.

Collectively they have over 70 years of teaching experience and just over 30 years of experience in learning support teaching.

Mitchell said the role of learning support teachers were extremely varied, especially between different schools and sectors; however, they all revolve around supporting students with diverse learning needs.

“In Catholic schools in Queensland, ST:IEs are responsible for supporting students with learning differences and students with disabilities, which makes it a huge role,” Mitchell said.

“In Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) schools, ST:IEs are now considered to be Specialist Teachers and we are teachers who have developed knowledge in a special interest area.”

Campbell adds that a key role of learning support teachers should be building capacity (in students and teachers) as well as holding schools accountable for, and challenging, inclusion practices.

“It’s crucial that we are able to educate our peers around contemporary practices in inclusion,” Campbell said.

“Specialist teachers in learning support can hold schools accountable and challenge practice – and this is not a bad thing.

Crucial skill sets

Mitchell believes it is important for teachers considering going into such a specialist role to have an empathy for students with diverse learning needs.

“[Learning support teachers] need to understand why a student learns the way they do and have the skills to investigate barriers to student’s learning difficulties,” she said.

“They need to have a deep understanding of learning difficulties, learning styles and specific disabilities as well as have good observation skills to determine what is happening for a student in the classroom.

“They need to be able to put together the learning profile of the student and be able to determine the best supports for the student to access curriculum and be positive about learning,” she said.

Mitchell explains it is also crucial to be able to work in partnership with everyone across the school, particularly classroom teachers, and be able to maintain strong relationships with students and their families.

“[We] are required to develop working relationships with admin, teachers, school officers, specialists, outside agencies and families.

 

“Specialist teachers in learning support can hold schools accountable and challenge practice – this is a positive thing.”

 

Widespread support

Learning support teachers work best in collaborative partnerships to support students in the classroom and for their learning.

Campbell agrees the ability to foster positive relationships is a key skill for learning support teachers.

“We support our students, our teachers and our parents – everyone in the school setting,” she explains.

“You have to go in understanding that everyone has a role to play, so we need to value everyone’s input into the student’s learning.

“Parents and classroom teachers are a great source of wisdom – they are at the coalface with students and have great ideas about how to cater for them.

“And students themselves, as the main stakeholder, they should have voice and choice,” Campbell said.

Mitchell said each stakeholder brings skills and knowledge which need to be respected.

“When classroom teachers involve [us] in their classrooms on a regular basis, [we] are able to develop relationships with the students, work in the classrooms and observe more closely,” she said.

“Teachers are very astute about their students but they are not always able to see everything that happens in their classrooms, that is why the ST:IE being in the classroom regularly becomes an important, specialist pair of second eyes.

“I have always believed the classroom teacher is the first-person parents speak to about their child’s needs.

“Teachers need to develop good communication and openness with parents, in order to discuss their concerns.

“When teachers and ST:IEs have solid working partnerships, parents can see the considered support being given to their child.

“ST:IEs have an important role to play with families.

“They support the classroom teacher by being an advocate for the student to the parents as well as from the parents to the school,” said Mitchell.

NCCD impact

The implementation of the NCCD has had a major impact on teaching and workload.

While many teachers acknowledge that it brings inclusive education to the forefront of teaching practice, the administrative burden and inconsistent support given by both employers and the government have taken a toll.

Campbell believes the NCCD has done a great job of highlighting the need for personalised learning and has had a positive impact for students; however, she acknowledges that with teachers already time-poor, extra time and support are greatly needed.

“It’s made schools look really closely at the ways they cater for students with a disability,” she said.

“It is really propelling us to meet our obligations under the disability standards for education, so that’s fantastic.

“It is also a more logical way to fund students with a disability because it is entirely based on the frequency and the intensity of the adjustments being made, meaning the harder you work for a student with a disability, the more funding the government is likely to give you.

“It’s forced a lot of teachers to look at their own personal practices and cater in an authentic way for students.

“It is a difficult process though because the administration takes a lot of time and it’s meant to be part of normal practice.

“Teachers are doing it but are really struggling to find the time to record and store their evidence.

“This is a shame because teachers work with goodwill – it’s their default setting – they try really hard to make sure students are included in learning and are catered for.

“However, what we find is that teachers are having to enter the data in their own time because they are time-poor: we want to do the right thing by our students and schools but it takes time.”

Annette Campbell (centre)

NCCD – a professional and union issue

Inclusion of students with additional needs is an integral element of contemporary education but quality inclusion requires the provision of adequate support and resources for teachers, inclusion support staff and students.

Employers must take a proactive approach and meet NCCD demands by implementing adequate infrastructure and realistic time provisions for teachers.

This should be distinct from usual planning, preparation and correction time (PPCT) and general, regular or scheduled staff meetings.

Schools must also establish clear processes through which staff members can raise concerns if they believe the demands of the NCCD are not being adequately resourced.

The employment of additional school support staff to assist in the administration of the NCCD would an effective way of dealing with the workload.

Our union commends those school Principals who have already intervened with measures to ameliorate the increased demands.

Where requirements of the NCCD are significantly affecting members, IEU members need to work collaboratively with their IEU Organiser to address the situation.

Not about ‘fixing students’

Both Mitchell and Campbell said the role of inclusive education has evolved over time and moved away from the degrading concept of ‘fixing’ students.

Mitchell said thankfully this attitude has diminished and learning support teachers are welcomed into classrooms to truly support students and classroom teachers; however, there was still work to be done to ensure all teachers fully understand the complexities of learning support teacher roles.

“ST:IEs are often expected to deal with the behaviour management of students…and we are often asked to take classes if relief staff are not available,” Mitchell said.

Campbell added that schools need to be respectful of diversity and understand that many students have complex disabilities.

“We need to work from a strength-based approach and respect that all students bring great things to the classroom.

“All kids can learn and ARE learners.”

She said intervention provided by learning support teachers was a powerful tool and when using an evidence-based program learning can be remediated and students can work well back in the classroom.

“[The education system] needs to stop approaching school as product and let teachers focus on the process of developing critical skills and knowledge,” she said.

“This means ensuring classroom teachers have access to training and the ability to use professional judgment so they become skilled practitioners catering to the needs of their students.

“The consequence will mean that students who genuinely need learning support teachers are able to access our help, rather than those that do not need it,” Campbell said.

Sue Mitchell

Recognising specialist skills

The IEU believes inclusion is more than finding a place for a student in a school – it is about determining appropriate and well-resourced learning environments, support practices and access to services which will ensure quality education for students with disability.

What is clear from both Mitchell and Campbell is that learning support teachers are specialists in the teaching profession.

Their work requires a great deal of expertise and skill to successfully carry out and this must be recognised and rewarded appropriately.

Campbell believes schools are seeing the best and brightest teachers taking up the challenge to work in inclusion and support.

“This role is powerful when it’s backed up by teachers who have exceptional skills in the classroom.

“It’s a privileged role and a great place to work – you get the great company of fantastic practitioners who want to serve the community, advocate for students and have a genuine believe in inclusion,” Campbell said.

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