Peter leads and teaches at a complex and challenging Special Education school, The Hills in New South Wales. Of the students he teaches, 90% have a severe intellectual disability, 70% are on the autism spectrum, 80% are non-verbal, 40% have failed in other settings and 99% have experienced high-level family crisis, trauma and/or family breakdown. Yet it is not only the pupils that face challenging obstacles. Parents also report a life with unhealthy levels of stress, lost friendships and careers, feelings of isolation, grief, mental ill-health, lack of family support and loss of hope. Families are experiencing a form of poverty that sits either in or outside financial hardship.
Peter strongly believes that the greatest challenge in teaching and advocating for complex learners is a society that does not respond appropriately to the learning needs of intellectually disabled students. Their learning processes and giftedness are not sufficiently understood and valued. Quality of practice is varied and well-meaning teachers often contribute to student anxiety by overpitching content. However, Peter also believes that ALL students can learn with the right educational practices and support to their families – so that they can be well understood, assisted with communication and nurtured to unveil their talents. When this happens, the result is often a profound life change for all involved.
To this end, Peter leads a five-year Communication Passport project – a collaborative effort between The Hills School and a speech pathologist. The Passport aims to scaffold the students’ knowledge, skills and understanding within the framework of the curriculum, moving students progressively towards stronger understanding and ultimately greater independence. This is now a significant component of a $250,000 Fair Education-sponsored cluster project, Success for Complex Learners, involving six schools across New South Wales; it has also led to the school receiving the New South Wales Department of Education Award for School Excellence 2018, as well as an Australian Teaching Fellowship for Peter.
If awarded the Global Teacher Prize, Peter will use the funds to increase the school’s capacity for leaders that promote a positive culture and strategic partnerships; university partnerships to research and promote innovation in special education; and trainees to trial and assist with new learning practices.