Special Education in Trinidad and Tobago: Educational Vision and Change

Article excerpt

This article shares interpretations of an important piece of professional development in teacher education in Trinidad and Tobago, an initiative that came about because of the unique relationship between the Association of Special Education of Trinidad and Tobago (TASETT), the Teachers Union of Trinidad and Tobago (TUTTA), and the University of Sheffield in England. The authors will examine the strengths and weaknesses in the implementation of this special education initiative, placing it within the political and cultural context of a small island nation. The article also shares the personal and professional experiences of two teacher educators committed to the politics of change and education reform and the navigating of such reform within a culture not quite ready for major change. The authors were directly involved with this special education initiative as project directors. In offering this account, we share some of the less-known challenges faced and critical lessons learned.

We use a self-study methodology because of the lasting impression our experiences have made on our lives as educators and professionals. Self-study is interpreted here as "reflective enquiry," leading to self-understanding and professional development in one's work (Knowles & Cole, 1996). We also view our work within the theoretical framework of education change, as prescribed by Fullan and Stiegelbauer (1991). We actively sought change and have come away enriched through the experience.

The Impetus for Change

Education change is always difficult when a country does not have the necessary human or material resources, or when that country does not see the importance of the particular area to its development. The latter can be said of the Trinidadian government's attitude toward special education in the 1980s. Special education teacher training was not considered a major component of teacher education. The curriculum generated by the University of the West Indies did not include special education programs, and such programs could not be implemented due to lack of resources or trained personnel. At the same time, it can be said that a considerable number of students with special needs could be found in the regular classrooms, the traditionally segregated special schools did not have adequate resources or facilities, and teachers were under-prepared and under-resourced, both at special and regular schools. Teachers were struggling in the schools, and there were no special education teachers in the mainstream elementary and secondary schools.

Historically, philanthropic and religious organizations took responsibility for implementing special education in Trinidad and Tobago in separate special schools. In 1980, the government took a major step in the development of this sector of education by forming a special education unit that would establish guidelines and supervise all special education schools in the country. The Ministry of Education, although "committed" to adequate education for all, lamented that the cost of making special education teachers available was too high.

In 1989, the Ministry of Education in Trinidad and Tobago completed a series of workshops under the auspices of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the University of Manitoba. This Special Education Sensitization Project was part of the ministry's initiatives to address special education needs, as spelled out in the Marge Report (1984). This report proposed that the Ministry of Education address special education teacher preparation as an urgent matter. The CIDA/University of Manitoba project was immensely successful and the workshops served to give teachers a "taste" of special education strategies and highlighted the need for more teacher education in the area of special education. However, neither the Ministry of Education nor the University of the West Indies were willing to embark on such large-scale teacher education. …