Melissa Daniels: Special Education Head

We are moving back to Queensland this week, with Melissa Daniels, Head of Special Education for a cluster of primary schools taking over as host of EduTweetOz. Melissa is an advocate for inclusive education, and we’re really looking forward to her perspective this week.

To connect with Melissa, please follow her at @PensiveM

MelissaDaniels

Please tell us a little about your background in education. Why did you decide to become involved in education? What are some of the roles you’ve had and what does your current role involve?

I am what is referred to as a special education teacher, with my current substantive role being the Head of Special Education for a cluster of primary schools. At times, I struggle with the title of ‘special education’ because it can raise connotations of working externally to mainstream classrooms with only a select group of students. I prefer to see my role focused on working with students, teachers, support staff, parents, school leaders…the whole school community! – to increase students’ access to education, whether through adjustments to the physical environment, social constructs or the curriculum. I believe that our schools are our first window into what the future will look like. What and how students learn will impact on the way they make decisions as adults in the years to come and I see this said ‘how and what’ extending beyond the set curriculum. Consequently, I believe prioritising the cultivation of inclusive school cultures is necessary for the development of a society that better sees each individual as a worthy, contributing member of the community; this is the reason I am involved in education and the type of work that I do.

I have been working to positively enact on that vision for almost a decade now. In my education life, in addition to my current role, I have been a high school Special Education teacher, the Head of Special Education in a secondary setting and the principal of a Special School (that proudly refused to have the word ‘special’ in its name). I have also been an Acting Deputy Principal in both primary and secondary schools on several occasions. I will add that my current ‘role’ is primarily ‘parent’ as I am presently enjoying maternity-slash-study leave this year.

 

Who or what keeps you inspired and motivated in your work?

When I was working in secondary schools, the success stories of the students I had worked with were considerable buzz creators. To hear they had successfully transitioned to independent (or as independent as possible) post-school life, with meaningful employment or volunteering opportunities and a full social life, highlighting the culmination of our years of support and involvement, was incredibly motivating – still is! These stories also exist for those working in the primary sector, but I personally am yet to work there long enough to hear reports of students who have now finished school. Nevertheless, the same ‘buzz’ is created when you know your efforts have contributed to a student reaching a new milestone, whether it be a student whom previously displayed frequent volatile outbursts successfully learning in a mainstream classroom or another with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and moderate anxiety fully participating in the school swimming carnival. Seeing students grow and develop is a reward in itself. I would be surprised to hear a teacher answer this question without a mention of students in some shape or form: if what we do isn’t for the students, what exactly are we doing?

I will add, though, that since I have become a parent, my motivation and inspiration has an additional layer. When I look at my sons, I am filled with a want to give them the best start in life and I know that an engaging, challenging education is one of the ways to create that foundation. So now, when I look at the students I work with, I am full of a better appreciation that they are someone’s child and their parents, too, want their children to have the best start in life AND that I am entrusted with a meaningful role in shaping that education. I find that realisation particularly motivating.

What do you see as some of the biggest rewards and challenges for people working in education today?

In addition to the success stories I mentioned in my previous answer, I would add that one of the biggest rewards for people working in education is the diversity of opportunities and pathways for educators. I feel our industry is one that values and needs people with a wide-range of skills and interests to be the vibrant, dynamic system that it is. While there will always be certain standards we need to meet, being a teacher – or working in education – means having permission to share your interests and talents with others. We cannot all be ‘experts’ in the same areas, so we should celebrate the different abilities we bring to the learning scene – build on the strengths of those around us.

In terms of challenges….well, I could draw attention to the challenges we know we face on a regular basis such as overloaded curriculum, distribution of resources, teacher burn-out…however, what I will say in this space is that I feel the biggest challenge for people working in education right now is the evolution of an early 21st century model of education. We know that much of our current system generates from an Industrial Revolution model for learning, but we are living in the time of the Technology Revolution (particularly Information Technology) and so the model needs to evolve with the times. What this model looks likes, the learning that is to be prioritised and the means through which learning should predominantly occur is all up for debate – and is currently being debated – at present, and so I see this transition will continue to be our biggest opportunity, as well as challenge, in the near foreseeable future.

 

If you had the ability to make changes to the education system in Australia, what would you do?

Two things I would like to see change are (1) the profile of teachers and respect for the teaching profession – perhaps more externally to our system, but there are internal issues as well; and (2) the definition of what is ‘quality education’ and ‘high performing’. I am an advocate for inclusive education practices and I feel if our chief indicator for a quality school is a set score on a standardized test, the definition may be too narrow. Whenever the topic of ‘performance-based pay’ for teachers is raised, I wonder how it would be determined if I or someone else in a special education role may be worthy of this incentive…

 

What role do you see EduTweetOz playing on the education scene in Australia and what are your hopes for the account this week?

I am relatively new to edu-tweeting. I have had a Twitter account for some years, but until six months ago was unaware that you could use it for much, much more than following famous people and ‘to-the-second’ news feeds. Since November last year I have discovered the impact of Twitter chats, learned of some inspiring education-related podcasts and connected with a range of inspirational, enthusiastic educators around the world. I also discovered EduTweetOz and love the premise of an ongoing education-related discussion that travels down many diverse and divergent paths due to a rotating roster of real people working in the Education field, right here in Australia, from all sectors and states and territories. I will be honest and say that my feelings going into this experience is a mixture of nervousness and excited anticipation, as I am not confident as to what I have to add, but that is even more reason to put up my hand and have a go…

My hopes for this week are to generate two-way conversation. I want to learn from you as much as you learn from or with me. I hope to extend my Professional Learning Network through this experience, but the fact I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone to even do this means it will be valuable no matter the outcome.

 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I will add that the views and opinions I share are my own and that they are not necessarily shared or endorsed by my employer. I know you know that, but just so there can be no confusion or misunderstanding.

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