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Interview with ‘Inspirational Teacher of the Year’, Abi Steady (Part One)

On July 1st, the Leicester Mercury School Awards were held in celebration and recognition of those who go above and beyond their duties to support young people. One of the winners was Abi Steady, who was awarded ‘Inspirational Teacher of the Year’ by our very own Gerry Manolas for the work she does to share her knowledge with other teaching staff. We spoke to Abi to find out more about her approach to teaching and creating the right team in a special educational needs (SEN) environment.

Finding the right people

Hiring the right teachers for SEN schools is about more than just a teaching qualification. Whilst of course skills are important, they can be learned. To be successful in SEN, you definitely need people with real energy about them; people that find the job itself energising. Working with children that have additional needs can be challenging — you just have to love it. It’s crucial that we find people who love this challenge.

Our approach is simple: If a typically developing child can access a learning experience, then we’d want our pupils to be able to have the same opportunity. With this is mind, we need resourceful people. People who are willing to go that extra mile to get that small result. The paper work might be heftier and the risk assessment more taxing, but if it’s in a child’s best interest, we’ll find a way.

We’re in the business of opening doors for families who face many obstacles trying to access every day opportunities for their children. I look for people who our passionate about levelling the playing field for everyone. It’s all too easy in teaching these days to say, ‘we can’t do that because’. If we don’t strive to create a more inclusive society, then who else will champion this cause?

Another core characteristic I look for is creativity. Our teachers have to be prepared to think outside the box and certainly mustn’t take themselves too seriously. As for all young people, the most effective teaching experiences are typically hands-on and fun but it takes a particularly high level of ingenuity to make learning accessible for young people complex learning needs.

Challenging the Status Quo

We recently entered into a national joke competition organised by a speech and language charity. I entered us not just because we wanted to win the award, but because the competition only allowed for spoken joke entries. We believed that this competition should be made accessible to all young people; those who are non-verbal, those using communication devices, those who sign and those who are only able to perform visual jokes. To champion this need for greater inclusivity Ashmount School held an event called, ‘You’re Havin’ a Laugh Week’. During this week, we taught our children how to perform different types of jokes and crucially, when it is or isn’t a good time for a joke. We even had teachers wearing, ‘I’m not in a joking mood today’ stickers to support the message. We held Britain’s Got Talent style key stage heats and had a panel of people in from the local community to judge the finals.

It was one of our Year 2 children won the school competition. Her joke went on to be entered in the national competition and she was invited to perform her joke at The Houses of Parliament.  I also sent videos of all of the jokes our children had come up with to the competition organisers to show them that they should be thinking beyond speech, to include young people with all levels of communication needs. It’s about challenging preconceptions and established ‘norms’. 

Creating a team mentality

Over the past 20 years I have worked in a variety of roles within education. Having started out as a one-to-one LSA in a mainstream school and working my way through to advisory teaching and most recently Deputy Head, I feel confident in my ability to lead people at all levels. Having worked my way up from a supporting role I feel well-placed in guiding teachers to empower their staff team. At Ashmount we avoid having a strict or solid hierarchy as a consequence; everybody is prepared to muck in. We’re all in the mix and do everything as needed; there should never be an attitude of, ‘I’m not doing that because I’m in this role’. Ideally you shouldn’t be able to tell who is in charge in the classroom, unless they’re leading from the front. We look for people that fit that profile and in my opinion, it is this team attitude that leads to success in a SEN environment.

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