Teaching Teachers – Spotlight on: Christine Grima-Farrell
In celebration of Catholic Schools Week, our spotlight is on academic and educator, Dr Christine Grima-Farrell. Her dedication to helping teachers develop their skills and build their confidence in working with students with disabilities has seen her awarded with this year’s Brother John Taylor Fellowship. Christine tells us what she wants to ultimately achieve in her research, and the unique position that educating people with disabilities has in Catholic schools.
What do you do?
I lead a team of very hard working and dedicated Education Officers and Learning Support Coordinators and teachers who strive to break down barriers and maximise learning outcomes for students with diagnosed disabilities across 44 schools in the Diocese of Broken Bay.
Describe an average day
I can honestly say that no two days in this position are the same. There are office days, meeting days, school visits, professional development sessions and collaborations with a diverse range of external stakeholders. These range from medical professionals to researchers, students, parents and disability leaders.
The nature of the position requires you to be organised whilst being responsive to the needs of our students, parents and teachers. We have significant compliance demands that are evolving in the National Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability space. This requires significant administration, in terms of the collection and collation of evidence across four domains. However I believe it is critical for us all to ensure our students remain the motivators and drivers of this, as it is easy to be burdened by the administrative demands.
Building teacher confidence and capacity in this evolving space, whilst remaining responsive to the needs of our system and school staff as they respond to the real demands of competing classroom contexts, may be the reason why no two days are ever the same.
What is a great day?
A great day is when I learn new things and when I witness real inclusive school and team cultures that respect individual learner variability. It is when that deep essence of belonging is evident in the expressions, actions and words of the team, you can feel it and see it on the faces of our students and their families.
I believe inclusion really is a whole-school and system concern and it works to align special education with general education in a manner that most effectively and efficiently imparts quality education to all our students. We want all students to experience a circle of courage that encompasses a sense of belonging, mastery and independence.
A great day is when we acknowledge that no one is immune from challenges, but all work collaboratively toward achieving a mutually shared vision, where learner variability is the norm and student learning, growth and development remain at the core of our work.
What is a challenging day?
Juggling the multiple demands of the position and closed mindsets can be difficult to deal with, but my challenging days would have to be when working with families and students who have degenerative syndromes or those who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses.
You can experience a sense of powerlessness, and as teachers, you strive to create opportunities for students to learn, grow and flourish. That powerlessness over their health is really confronting. But when you know they are at home in our schools, and feel that essence of belonging to our Catholic learning communities, it helps to know that we can support them in quite diverse ways.
Why did you choose this kind of work?
It feels rather bizarre as I never expected I would be in this position at CSO Broken Bay. In some roundabout way I feel this work has chosen me.
I started my career as a classroom teacher and loved it. I somehow ended up in a learning support teacher position and really enjoyed that work also. My need to learn more about ways of differentiating learning content, process and assessment to maximise student engagement resulted in an increasing interest in research-based interventions. I needed to know why the research we had heard and read about didn’t seem to be sustained in our classrooms to assist our hard working teachers respond to the needs of our students with the greatest learning challenges.
This interest drove the next part of my journey as a teacher educator, researcher and academic at ACU and UNSW, with a specific focus on raising awareness of ways to merge research and practice to support the diverse needs of students through promoting collaborative partnerships.
I now feel incredibly privileged to be able to work with such a dynamic team, who are lighthouse in their approach and willingness to push through potential limitations, to look at what works and why and the implications of this in the field of practice-based implementation science.
What advice would you give to others interested in this line of work?
Communication and collaboration is key!!! Never underestimate the power of authentic and honest relationships. Putting deposits in the relationship bank is really helpful, and that can be highlighted during challenging times. Remain optimistic and realistic, set manageable and achievable goals that celebrate the good in people and their intentions. Be true to yourself and strive for a sense of calm and logic in complex situations.
What kinds of skills or talent does someone need for this job?
That is an interesting question and it depends on the hat you have to put on for the demands of the day, hour or meeting.
I guess the components essential to most parts of the position include flexibility, clarity, commitment, communication and agility. You also need to be genuine, as our students are really instinctive and clever at being able to detect who are their advocates and believe that they can really achieve.
What is something only those in your industry would know?
The motivation of working with some of the most interesting students, families and teachers is so powerful. Yes, as teachers we seem to have to deal with challenges and claims from multiple stakeholders who have never walked in our shoes.
There are real concerns around lack of time, demands and other issues, but the magic light bulb moments are priceless and as special education staff, we have the good fortune of working with some of the most amazing and resilient students, parents and teachers I know. Teaching them and learning things that go beyond curriculum content from them, their families and other staff is incalculable.
What role does faith play in your work?
Respecting the dignity of students and their families is at the core of my work and life. I believe my faith helps me in my most challenging moments and continues to evolve in different ways.
I have been immersed in the Catholic faith from birth as a student, classroom practitioner, staff member and leader. Through these experiences, I continue to develop an understanding of what it means to be Catholic. This assists in my professional and personal life and in my respect for the dignity and uniqueness of all individuals.
I cherish opportunities to continue to grow alongside other Catholic educators and leaders, students and their families, as with God’s grace and guidance, we work collaboratively to enhance successful outcomes through faith, knowledge and ethical practices.
Congratulations on being awarded the Brother John Taylor Fellowship this year! What are you looking forward to now?
The intent of (the Brother John Taylor Fellowship) is to work with our teachers in building their confidence and capacity in working with students with disabilities.
We’re moving in evolving space now, where we need to move away from the traditional fundamental models into a space that looks at four key areas in terms of adjustments. We need to identify if the student has a disability, and then provide adjustments based on that disability, and those adjustments can be quite diverse depending on the students’ learning needs. It can be looking at the physical design of the classroom to enhance mobility and accessibility; it can be utilising universal design for learning principles in terms of making the curriculum adjustment the differentiation of, not only the content, but the process and product as well.
We also need to be looking at monitoring those adjustments, and recording whether those adjustments have actually been successful, or at what point we need to be altering those adjustments to break down barriers, whether they be physical or whether they be in curriculum or the social or emotional learning space. It is quite an exciting journey, as to say it is evolving over time with incredible haste at the moment. It seems to be something that has been coming for 20 years and now we are in the thrust of what that means for students and teachers.
So my aim is to learn for others, in terms of what can we do as a Catholic school system, to support our teachers along this journey, to build their growth and collaborate with national and local partners, as well as international colleagues, who may have been down a similar pathway and we can share some of the resources and learnings with each other.
How are Catholic Schools different in their approach to education and support for people with disabilities?
I think there are differences, but the similarities are that we are all motivated – public, independent and Catholic sectors – are all motivated and care for the successful engagement of all students, (those) with disabilities and without.
From my experience, that essence of the lived Catholic culture is precious to me, in terms of valuing the dignity of people and aspiring to be Christ-like in our actions. It’s that mutual respect for each other in the Catholic faith. I think the teaching of the Catholic scripture, tradition and the actual lived experience of what that looks like as we collaborate across multiple stakeholders for me has been quite a precious journey.
How do you see the value of a Catholic school education?
It’s a personal experience where families have quite a selection of schools that they could choose for their children. There are so many different variables that come into that decision. But if they are a family that wants to build an intrinsic faith in their children, in terms of the scripture content, how that plays out in their daily lives, and their relationship with others within their local classroom settings and beyond into the community, that should be a parent’s decision.
The notion of the Catholic-lived values through scripture and how it translates across domains of other relationships, the building of friendships, and the notion of acceptance and belonging is quite a rich thing that we can embed in our kids from a very early age, and I think that is priceless.