This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
Shelley Moore learned her biggest lesson from beneath a classroom desk – one that would shape the direction of her career.
A new teacher in the Richmond, B.C., school district, Ms. Moore was assigned to work with high-school students who had significant disabilities. Early in her career, she faced a particular challenge: coaching a 17-year-old deaf, blind and autistic boy who felt safest when under his desk.
She learned that the teen loved math, and so she would use flashcards to ask him related questions.
But he would sit there, under his desk, seemingly inattentive and flipping through the pages of a dictionary.
It wasn’t until a few days later that Ms. Moore noticed he was working out the math problems and then flipping to that numerical page in the dictionary. It was a transformational moment that would, almost a decade later, take her work beyond the four walls of that classroom and make her an unofficial but highly sought-after guide on inclusive education.
“It was a really big lesson. The learning I had that day was not about me learning about his disability, but it was my inability to see that he was competent," Ms. Moore recalled in a recent interview. She has repeated that story to audiences of educators.
Several provinces have struggled with including children with developmental disabilities in regular classrooms, even as they’ve moved toward a model of inclusive education over the past few decades.
In Alberta, the use of isolation rooms for students with behavioural issues has come under the spotlight and Minister of Education David Eggen has appointed a panel to draft strict guidelines on their use. Meanwhile, People for Education, an advocacy group in Ontario, released a recent survey that found students deemed to have special needs are increasingly asked to stay home for at least part of the day. And another advocacy group, Inclusion BC, published a report earlier this year of what it described as “disturbing practices,” including a student left in seclusion for more than three hours, another tied to a chair and others restrained with straps or cuffs.
Ms. Moore, 39, has worked with educators in all three provinces, guiding them in how to support children with complex and diverse needs.
She was once one of those children. Ms. Moore has a learning disability, which manifested itself in behavioural issues at school. She struggled and eventually was expelled. After that, she was placed in alternative school.
Ms. Moore said she thrived there because of teachers who found a way to work with her and support her – a lesson she would apply years later to the boy underneath the table.
Soon after starting at the Richmond school district, Ms. Moore joined the board’s support team to help other schools with inclusion. Currently, she is working on her PhD at the University of British Columbia in inclusive education.
“She’s in such high demand in school districts. She’s phenomenal. She’s just a real gift, I tell you,’” said Karen DeLong, director of inclusive education at Inclusion BC. “She carries with her the value that every child has a right to be included in the classroom. And her work has taken off in that arena, where she’s got practical tools to give to teachers and educators on how to achieve that.”
In her sessions, whether it’s in classrooms or in auditoriums, Ms. Moore tells stories of the kids and their families. She uses the story of the boy under the table, for example, to have a conversation on how to find ways to support children. “There’s a lot of research and there’s a lot of literature,” she said, “but sharing the stories is impacting people to shift the practice and the assumptions.”
Leyton Schnellert, an associate professor in the department of curriculum and pedagogy at UBC and Ms. Moore’s PhD supervisor, first met her when he taught her at the alternative school years back. He’s watched Ms. Moore take her experiences as a student and apply them to the field of inclusive education.
“Twenty-five years later, to see that she is now a leader in this field, someone who was framed as not thriving herself, really shows what she has to offer,” Prof. Schnellert said. “Shelley didn’t have special needs; she had gifts. Providing her that space to grow and develop, it is incredible to see her flourish.”
“She is an example of what she believes in," he added. "It’s a beautiful alignment between experience, values, perspective and contributions. She’s really following what emerges in ways that pushes the field forward.”
Ms. Moore often thinks back to that 17-year-old boy. He’s approaching 30 and still living in Richmond, she said.
“I carry his story with me everywhere I go. As soon as we made that connection, he trusted me and he came out from under that table,” she said.
She said she understands that teachers are not necessarily receiving adequate funding to support the needs of students, but she hopes her work is helping them draw out more children.
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