As a veteran educator, Dr. Noëlla Piquette-Tomei, is an expert at integrating people with learning or physical disabilities into regular classroom settings. Her teaching and research interests have led her down many roads, including a recent trip to the United Nations as one of a handful of Canadians involved in a worldwide effort to make education systems more inclusive.
"If there's one overarching link through everything I do, it is that I am very interested in assisting marginalized populations," says Piquette-Tomei.
"I have been since I was a child."
Piquette-Tomei began volunteering when she was only 11 years old, and to this day she describes it as a saving grace.
"For five years, one night a week, I would take two buses across Edmonton to volunteer with seniors who were disabled, and on weekends I worked with a man named Henri. He had had polio when he was 15 and was a quadriplegic, but he was also an artist and one of the most intelligent people I'd ever met."
Being with Henri and his friends while at the same time attending a junior high school where there were a lot of misconceptions surrounding disabled and disadvantaged people, caused Piquette-Tomei to really examine traditional world views and learning systems.
"I remember questioning it all the time. I am sure I drove everyone crazy, but that really set out a path for me to follow," says Piquette-Tomei. "I've never stopped asking why, and I have tried to alter misconceptions, but not in an antagonistic way. If there are narrow thoughts and beliefs in a community, then I try to show evidence that supports a different perspective."
After earning a degree in education, Piquette-Tomei's first job brought her back to junior high school, but this time as a teacher of a class of special needs students ranging from grade one to six.
"It was thought that the students in my classroom couldn't be contained in regular classes. They had meltdowns. They carried knives. They had a host of behavioural challenges," recalls Piquette-Tomei.
With nothing to lose, Piquette-Tomei began to implement some of the new ideas she had about integration, and it wasn't long until she began to see positive results. Often bending the rules, Piquette-Tomei worked with her students to develop their interests in ways that worked for them.
"One of my students had severe behavioural problems and was living in foster care. He was told that he could return to his mother if he was able to move forward and 'graduate' from the behavioural adaptation class.
"He learned that he loved to read only after being introduced to the book version of a movie he had recently viewed. I encouraged him to read it. As a grade 5 student, this was the first book he ever read. After, he asked if he could be excused from other courses in order to read more.
"I remember thinking, I could be fired for this, for basically ignoring the rest of the curriculum, but I also thought what he really needed was to be engaged. So I allowed him to read for more than a month in my class, every day, all day. I couldn't even get him out of the classroom for recess. By the end of the year, he did go back to his other courses, and by the end of grade six he was reading at a much higher level and had no evidence of behavioural issues."
As mindsets changed and classes generally became more integrated, Piquette-Tomei ignored critics who said that special education teachers, such as herself, would not be well-suited to the new environment.
"I started my master's in special education around the time school boards were looking at mainstreaming and inclusion. I was told by most people that my skills would not be needed. However, I was already using the basic principles – I had been for about five years – and now it was even more interesting to study the theory by night and put it into practice in the classroom the next day."
Despite being under a microscope as the teacher of the first inclusive class in the Calgary Catholic school division, Piquette-Tomei succeeded in winning the support of her colleagues and administration.
Now, with a PhD in human development and learning and as a U of L professor in the Faculty of Education, Piquette-Tomei is using her vast experience to develop a new generation of teachers.
"It is easier to infuse knowledge about social justice and equity at the pre-service level and have teachers walk out into the world with those concepts already in place, than it is to alter someone's philosophy later.
"I have always known that the responsibility of being a teacher is that you do change lives. From the time I started as a student teacher, I understood the power of acceptance and inclusion."
It is a message she is taking again and again to her current students, colleagues and, as a result of her recent international experiences, to other educators worldwide.
"At the end of the day, it is not about the teacher. First and foremost, it is about the students and how they can benefit and learn best."
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