One teacher’s journey to inclusive education in Indonesia
Reflecting on my own experience as a learner
I used to feel sad about my experience of school. I struggled to make friends, and felt I had very little to offer in a friendship. This left me feeling isolated and my self-confidence was very low. I even dropped out during my first semester in senior high school, which really brought me down. Luckily I have a strong mother who always encouraged and supported me. In time, I returned to school, and later graduated with a Diploma in Education for Primary Teachers
The start of my journey
In 2003, the head teacher at my school called all 4th Grade teachers together. We were told that a girl with a visual impairment, Rina, would be enrolling and would need support. Rina was to be placed in my class. I was both happy and worried. My class was already big with 41 students, and I didn’t feel confident to manage a student with visual impairment.
When I was first asked to include Rina in my class, I was reminded of my experience of school and how, with the right support, I was able to overcome the challenges and succeed in education. This motivated me to face the challenges of being a more inclusive teacher. Responding to this challenge was an important step in my journey – a journey I had begun as a child.
Preparing for Rina
I didn’t have much experience of special or inclusive education, but I understood that it was more complicated than simply placing children with disabilities into regular classes. I asked the head teacher for time to prepare my class and their parents before Rina arrived. I thought we needed to talk about this first. I didn’t want my students or their parents to be confused, or for anything bad to happen because I hadn’t informed them about Rina.
I raised my students’ awareness about diversity and helped them to understand that every person is different and has different needs. We discussed how to make everyone happy in our class and what support we can give to friends who need help. I told them that we would have a student with a visual impairment joining our class. We decided democratically where she would sit and with whom.
Inclusive music activities
Next, I informed the parents and asked for their permission to let their children sit with Rina. Most of the parents were fine with having a student with a visual impairment in the class, but some had trouble with the idea. One parent told me that they would be watching the quality of my teaching. I felt very challenged – under pressure to guarantee the quality of my teaching.
In fact, my class already had very diverse learners – a student with emotional problems, and some with learning problems. I thought it would be difficult for me to include another student with an impairment, but I vowed to try my best.
Including Rina … and everyone
Every day of that first semester after Rina joined my class was a busy one! To prepare well took time as I didn’t want the quality of my teaching to suffer and negatively affect the development of my students. I learned how to read and write Braille, and how to teach math to students with special needs. I tried to implement everything I learned on inclusion in my teaching. I brought in additional teaching aids to use with Rina. I adapted my teaching methods and realised that my strategy for teaching students with special needs was good for all of my students. My teaching became clearer for everyone. At times I felt so tired, but I was happy because some parents came to thank me. One even told me her son was not afraid to learn math anymore.
Rina is now studying music at the University of Education Indonesia (UPI)!
I keep learning
Interacting with students with special needs was a very positive experience and encouraged me to learn more about special and inclusive education. I studied for a Master’s degree in Special Needs Education at UPI, with a scholarship from IDP Norway, and graduated in 2007. My spirit to learn never dies. Even though I was behind my classmates in school, now I am proud of myself. I am still studying – this time on a doctoral programme in Guidance and Counseling at UPI.
Teaching in an inclusive school and studying about special needs education not only improved my teaching, it changed my life and my thinking. I learned to be aware of my students and others, and to be more aware of myself and accept myself for who I am. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. Understanding this has been an important step in my journey towards inclusive education.
My new role and new challenges
In 2010 I became a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) in a new school in Bandung. I am working to make the school more inclusive and to support other local schools in developing inclusive teaching and learning environments.
The biggest challenges that I now face in bringing inclusive education into schools are with bureaucracy, and ignorance about inclusive education.
The government has strict standards for evaluating schools. Some teachers think that students with special needs will negatively affect their school performance – and do not always understand the need for flexibility in teaching and evaluating children with special needs.
Inclusive activities using outdoor spaces
It is not easy to find secondary schools for children when they leave primary school. Some schools say they have no certification as an inclusive school. Other schools with certification only take students with certain impairments. Even when students with special needs are accepted into regular schools, the schools often lack an understanding of inclusive education, and teachers focus on students’ barriers to learning, rather than improving the quality of education for their whole class.
Slowly but surely, my school and school community are becoming more inclusive. Through raising awareness about inclusive education, I have seen positive changes. I believe other schools can do the same. It is not an easy journey, but with commitment and consistency we get closer to our destination.
Dante Rigmalia is a teacher and SENCO at the Gegerkalong Girang primary school in Bandung, Indonesia. She has also founded the ‘Dante Rigmalia Foundation’ to support all children in getting a good quality education.
You can contact her via email on firstname.lastname@example.org