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For over 20 years I have been working in the world of Special Educational Needs (known as SEN). This refers to children who have learning difficulties arising from some kind of barrier or disability that impedes their capacity to learn in the normal way.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there is much conflict over the education of children with SEN, arising in large part from parental frustration with the confusing complexity of the system and the tensions of having to distribute finite resources fairly amongst an increasingly complex and needy child population. A parent’s instinct is to fight for their child if they feel they are not getting sufficient help in school, particularly when that child is perceived to be disadvantaged in some way.
I began work in SEN in 1990 with a local authority and soon became aware of the tensions and potential for conflict between parents, schools and the local authority. These tensions intensified, and I began to suffer from heightened stress and anxiety, dreading to pick up the phone or go to the next meeting in a school. In 1992, I was off work for around a month with exhaustion and stress. At the time, I was also a single parent looking after four young children. Once I felt well enough, I returned to work on a part-time basis in schools, and only returned to full-time work when all my children were in school.
I attended my first SGI meeting. I was especially struck by the sense of peace and unity amongst people of every conceivable background.
During my period out of SEN, the system had grown more confrontational and legalistic. After three years, my previous experiences repeated themselves, and I again had to take three weeks off work with nervous exhaustion.
Fortunately, I had been introduced to Buddhism in the weeks immediately preceding my illness and was able to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo during my rest period. On January 1, 2000, I attended my first SGI meeting. I was especially struck by the sense of peace and unity amongst people of every conceivable background.
I went back to work and determined to end my workplace suffering by transforming my approach to conflict. Through chanting, I had begun to see the destructive impact of my own fear and anger on those around me. I realized I had to become stronger and more compassionate, both toward myself and toward parents and schools. I began to chant wholeheartedly for the happiness of everyone involved—the child, parents, teachers, doctors and local authority staff. Gradually, I began to notice a “revolution” taking place, with much more amicable meetings leading to agreed actions based on a spirit of partnership, even from meetings where the parties had arrived with “daggers drawn.” The transformed spirit that I brought into meetings was having a remarkable effect. More importantly, I was beginning to discover a sense of mission and was gradually becoming happier at work.
related article The Power of Friendship by Peninah Achieng-Kindberg, UK SGI-UK member Peninah Achieng-Kindberg realizes the power of friendship through her involvement in Ebola fundraiser African Voices Forum. In 2002, I accepted a job as an SEN officer with a neighboring county council and determined to foster peaceful working relationships with the group of schools that had been allocated to me. I advocated a culture of sincere, open, compassionate and timely dialogue.
This was a period of great conflict between some parents and the council. There were numerous appeals to the SEN Tribunal, and some legal advocates routinely told parents not to speak to council officers. Some of my colleagues in the SEN team were suffering dreadfully. Remarkably, I faced only three parental appeals in three years in my area, with none of the parents feeling the need to involve lawyers.
In 2004, a fellow SGI-UK member encouraged me to consider how I could use my experience to influence the national debate around SEN. Since then, I have increasingly dedicated my efforts to this challenge. In November 2005, I was appointed as manager of the SEN Assessment Team in a disadvantaged, multiracial urban authority outside London. I was determined to foster a spirit of partnership between schools, parents and the local authority based on fair decision-making.
I took every opportunity to explain the reasons for the council’s decisions sincerely and openly to head teachers, special needs coordinators, doctors, other professionals and, of course, parents. I continued my practice of chanting for the happiness of every child, parent and teacher, especially when the council had rejected their request for extra help. By all pulling together, often we found another way of getting the child extra help in school. The number of tribunals dropped to their lowest-ever level, and complaints to councilors and MPs virtually stopped altogether.
After reading SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s guidance on the power of the written word, I decided to pick up my pen and had three articles published in national education and legal journals. These articles led directly to an invitation to attend the National Conference of the Education Law Association in London as a guest speaker. The conference was attended by many of the leading lawyers and barristers in the country specializing in SEN. I challenged the audience to think of the financial and human cost of legal advocacy on parents, schools and local authorities. I pointed out that schools and local authorities work under huge pressures, and that an objective look at the bigger picture would reveal the simple truth that taxpayers’ money has to be shared between all children with special needs.
related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by Sabra Williams, USA Sabra Williams is a Soka Gakkai member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. I highlighted how the expensive private education that lawyers secured from the tribunal for a few led to reduced resources for more disadvantaged schools and families. After a series of mostly hostile questions from the floor, I sat down to a stony silence! To my surprise, several of the legal advocates searched me out at lunchtime to express their empathy for my viewpoint. One young lawyer said she no longer wished to specialize in this area of law as she felt the implementation of the legal framework was unjust.
I have subsequently spoken to a wide range of groups, including parents, schools and local authorities, on the urgent need to establish a fairer and more compassionate approach to meeting the needs of children with SEN and disabilities.
In September 2011, my local authority provided funding for me to train as an Accredited Interpersonal Mediator. To me, securing this qualification means formal recognition of my role as a peacemaker within the world of SEN and the completion of a personal journey I began over 20 years ago.
I am indebted to my Buddhist practice, which has helped me develop compassion. I have taken to heart President Ikeda’s guidance that partnership in the genuine sense of the word requires a commitment to sincere dialogue based on respectful compassion for the other party’s difficulties and a spirit of fairness. For example, he writes:
“Dialogue must be pivotal in our endeavors, reaching out to all people everywhere as we seek to forge a new global civilization . . . Genuine dialogue results in the transformation of opposing viewpoints, changing them from wedges that drive people apart into bridges that link them together.”
I have proved to myself that when I change, so does my environment.
On more than one occasion I have witnessed parents, and even hard-bitten head teachers or local authority officers, moved to tears by a simple expression of compassion or gratitude from the other party acknowledging the difficulties of their role. I try positively to instill such a spirit at every meeting I attend.
Through sincere Buddhist practice, I have fundamentally transformed my feelings of inadequacy and weakness. I have learned something profound about my potential to create value in my own life and in the lives of others, based on the interconnectedness of life. I have proved to myself that when I change, so does my environment. In short, I feel I have become part of the solution to society’s problems, instead of part of the problem.