Building Capacity for Inclusion

"I had been told that my child would never be able to go to college, never be able to succeed. But when I came to this school, everything changed. I began to breathe again."

This weekend the American School of Paris hosted the Next Frontier Inclusion conference where teachers, administrators, parents and students joined together in a rich conversation about how schools can build both cultures and structures that embrace a rich diversity of learners.  The first day of the conference was marked by the power of parent and student panels. It is easy for schools to speak in platitudes about "diversity" and "inclusion" and "tolerance", but listening to these parents and students, affirmed the importance of having honest conversations about the struggles and successes of inclusion.  Parents revealed their heartfelt gratitude for teachers who believe in their children and those who serve as safe harbors in the times when frustration and sadness seem overwhelming.  Our students spoke of times when they felt judged by their peers and excluded from group work for fear of "bringing everyone down".  One of our high school students talked about her passion for history, but her inability to memorize large quantities of facts and how that made taking tests harrowing.  Instead of validating what she knew, the tests just revealed her deficits.

Through all of the challenges, the students spoke of the importance of having adults in their lives who believe in them and peers who accept them for who they are. When asked what advice they have for their teachers, one student said "just smile".  He acknowledged that sometimes it must be frustrating to explain something multiple times or be patient with his lack of attention, but just a simple smile changes everything.  Our Lower School Director, Dan Kerr reacted by reminding us all as educators that "we are the weather" for our students each day.

As schools we often focus on the things that are not working.  But listening to our students and parents made me so proud of the progress we have made as an inclusive school. Their sense of belonging and purpose that is nurtured each day helps them find success.  I truly wish all of our teachers had been there to hear how transformative they have been the lives of these families.

But there is no doubt that the conference made clear to me that we have much work to do in order to redefine how schools think about success and how we can nurture creativity and passion.  At one point in the conference, Ochan Powell challenged us to think about our admissions processes differently.  She provoked us by saying: "We often take the children who we think will be the easiest to teach." She is so right.  We neglect to think about how students with learning differences provide us with the best professional development on how to hone our craft, and push us to become healthier and stronger organizations.

One of the greatest ironies of being a teacher is that most of us entered the field to transform the lives of children, but we often do not believe in the possibility of that transformation and we sometimes give up on kids. Carol Dweck reminds us that our mindset is key in shifting our behaviors and admits: “Each year I come across students who just don’t seem to have it or don’t seem to get it. That is, they just don’t think the right way to do well in my courses. Each year I think maybe this is the one who cannot profit from instruction and motivational training. Each year I am wrong.”

The NFI challenges each school to base its decisions on the following set of principles
  1. Everyone has the right to learn.
  2. We start with the assumption that every child is different.
  3. We reach our greatest potential when we are self directed in our learning.
  4. Inclusion involves all Learning Stakeholders working in systematic ways.
  5. Inclusion raises our organizational intelligence.
One road map for starting to rethink schools in this way comes from Todd Rose's excellent book, The End of Average.  In this short TED talk, Rose explains how we need to address the "jaggedness" of learners.

The NFI conference was re-energizing and forced me to confront the times in my life as an educator that I threw up my arms and gave up on kids.  I look forward to helping our school continue to live its mission and become even stronger in serving our families. Special thanks to Ochan Powell, Kevin Bartlett, Kristen Pelletier and Simon Gillespie for leading us in such an important conversation.


  1. I agree with so much in this article, particularly that the perspectives of parents and children provide educators with greater understanding as we strive to improve schools and make them truly inclusive.

  2. I agree until we shift our perspectives this very sad fact will continue "One of the greatest ironies of being a teacher is that most of us entered the field to transform the lives of children, but we often do not believe in the possibility of that transformation and we sometimes give up on kids."

  3. I love how Ochan, with her calm way, always poses the difficult questions. Your post made me reflect on how schools can develop systems that allow for this 'rethinking' (or "thinking differently") to translate in "redoing" (or "doing differently"). Thanks for the post!


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