Sarah Skinner

How Universal Design for Learning influences collaborative practices of multi-disciplinary school teams to facilitate inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in general education classrooms
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I was working as a school-based occupational therapist, providing consultative services to support schools to including students with disabilities in general education classrooms. I wrote many great reports, full of recommendations to support the students on my caseload, but it appeared the work I was doing had very little impact on increasing their overall participation in the classroom. Although I was working with teachers and other therapists, it felt like we were operating in our own individual silos instead of working in collaborative relationships. I thought a master’s in Special Education would provide me with a better understanding of the education system I was working in, so I would be a more effective therapist. It did, but it also led to more questions and a strong interest in changing the system, not just my individual practice, so I applied to a PhD program!

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

The Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education at UBC has a “Supporting Inclusive Education” concentration as an option in their master’s programs. The field of education is currently going through a massive shift, as schools across the country are striving to provide learning environments that are inclusive of a diverse student population, as opposed to designing several segregated programs for students with specific learning needs. It was the first time I had come across a program with a focus on inclusive education and I was drawn to the opportunity to join such an innovative department and contribute to leading-edge research that influences policy and practices in education.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education has a Measurement, Evaluation, and Research Methodology (MERM) program and offers a sub-specialization in MERM for doctoral students. This sub-specialization provides allows students to develop their knowledge base in various research methodologies and has been a great learning opportunity for me. As well, there is a lot of flexibility in the Special Education doctoral program at UBC, and students are encouraged to build a program that best suits their individual learning needs. For example, I enrolled in classes offered by other programs, such as a course on college and university teaching and a course on educational leadership. Taking classes outside of my specific program (special education) helps me to see how my area of research (inclusive education for students with disabilities) fits into the greater educational context and allows me to design a program that will benefit my plans for a post-doctoral career.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I love the city of Vancouver! I was living in Victoria, BC, when I started my master’s degree and am now a full-time Vancouverite. I had always imagined Vancouver as a huge city, but as it is surrounded by mountains and ocean, it is surprisingly small. I get around the city primarily on my bike and can ride from my home in East Vancouver to UBC in just under an hour, almost always running into someone I know along the way.

The Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education at UBC was the first time I had come across a program with a focus on inclusive education and I was drawn to the opportunity to join such an innovative department and contribute to leading-edge research that influences policy and practices in education.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I enjoy working as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor in the Teacher Education Program, sharing my expertise and knowledge with my students and learning from their experiences. Engaging in conversations about what inclusive education can look like with the next generation of teachers is critical to creating change in the educational experiences of students with disabilities and being part of those conversations has been particularly exciting for me.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

On a multi-disciplinary school team, every member has a specific expertise and wealth of knowledge; when all members work collaboratively to solve problems, the creativity and problem-solving is incredible! However, the current education system does not foster inter-disciplinary collaboration and culture change is a long, slow process involving people from all aspects of education.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

My academic advisor is a great mentor, not only in my academic program, but also in preparing me for my future career. She gives me many opportunities to co-present alongside her at conferences and workshops in our local school districts, and she encourages me to volunteer for committees, both at the university and with our national association, the Canadian Association for Educational Psychology (CAEP). Not only are these opportunities invaluable learning experiences, but I have been able to develop professional relationships with people who dedicate their careers to creating change in education systems across the country.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I had a decade of work experience before grad school and reflecting on my practice as an occupational therapist contributed to deeper and richer learning in both my master’s and doctoral programs. I recently served as the occupational therapist on a British Columbia Ministry of Education outreach program, where I facilitated professional development workshops with a focus on building capacity of in-service, multi-disciplinary professionals to enhance inclusive education for students with significant disabilities. In my work with the outreach program, I gained first-hand experience working collaboratively on a multi-disciplinary team and facilitating change on multi-disciplinary teams. These experiences of multi-disciplinary collaboration prepared me for courses where I was the only occupational therapist in a room full of teachers, as well as laying the foundation for my doctoral research.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I love actively exploring the Pacific Northwest. My husband and I are into bike-packing (it’s similar to a multi-day hiking trip, but on a bicycle) and you really don’t have to go far to find yourself in some of the most incredible places – the Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast, the Sea-to-Sky Corridor…it’s amazing! We had our first child in December 2020, so we are spending a lot of time outside, camping, hiking, and riding bikes. It’s busy, but so much fun, watching her explore the world for the first time!

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Get involved in your department! Apply to work as a research or teaching assistant, attend and present at conferences, and volunteer for committees. Not only is it a great way to build your CV, but it gives you the chance to become part of the academic community and build relationships with faculty members and other grad students. It will help you to feel more connected in grad school and helps when you are starting your post-grad career.


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