Five Minutes with Dr Michelle Bonati

2 June 2015

Dr Michelle Bonati is an Associate Lecturer in Special and Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

Michelle received a 2014 Small Educational Innovation Grant for her project, Positive Approaches to Disability through Community Engagement, which is being developed in partnership with the Centre for Disability Studies.

What is your background and why did you decide to join the University?

I was a special-education teacher for several years in Arizona. I started getting my students involved in service-learning projects as a way to facilitate inclusion with their peers, address the general education curriculum, and help them address some of those real-life skills they were going to need after high school. I went back to school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned my doctorate in special education. When this position came up, it seemed like such a good fit for my interests, and considering the reputation of the University I thought it would be a good move.

What challenges have you encountered in your first academic role?

I was fortunate that my doctoral program provided me with opportunities to develop many skills I would need in my current role. I'm still working on finding a balance across my duties in teaching, research, and service. Coming from the United States created additional challenges. These included small and sometimes humorous misunderstandings involving language, such as understanding what 'whinging' means or how marks are assigned. Larger challenges have been related to gaining an understanding all of the Australian educational policies and legislation, especially those that impact students with disabilities. I feel privileged to work with such a collaborative team in Special and Inclusive Education. They have been supportive in helping me transition into my new role.

What differences have you noticed between the United States and Australian education systems?

There are definitely some differences between the K-12 education systems. The US is just now approaching a more standardised approach to curriculum - the standardised approach for Australian curriculum is also new, but there's probably more consistency here than there has been in the US. I've actually been learning a lot from my students - it's really helpful to hear about their experiences and what it's been like for them getting their education here, which is a helpful indicator of what they'll be going into as professional teachers.

Another difference is that the US has a longer history of inclusive education, so for me it's been more of a challenge helping preservice teachers here understand what we can do to include and support all students in their education.

Why did you decide to apply for a Small Educational Innovation Grant for your project, Positive Approaches to Disability through Community Engagement?

I'm interested in how service learning - which ties together the curriculum of a course with service that benefits to the wider community - can be used to promote more inclusive schools and communities. As part of my role here, I'm coordinating a large lecture unit, Positive Approaches to Special Education (EDUF3031). Part of the course is a self-organised field placement, and I wanted to make sure that there was an opportunity to experience inclusive education or have the concept of disability that is presented in a positive way.

I'm excited about collaborating with the Centre for Disability Studies and my colleague Associate Professor David Evans from the Faculty of Education and Social Work. The grant is providing funds to support and mentor our pre-service teachers to take part in a service-learning project with adults with intellectual disability from two different programs - the Inclusive Education Program and the Social Networking Group.

What results do you hope to see in the coming year, and what wider impact do you hope the project has?

We want to improve attitudes of pre-service teachers towards disability and inclusive education, increase their knowledge around that topic, and provide greater access for individuals with disabilities to the campus community. If the program works well, then we will also offer the same program in the EDUF3031 course for the primary school education students.

Do you have any advice for staff who will be applying for Educational Innovation Grants this year?

It's helpful to go to the information session offered by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education). The session gave me a good sense of the purpose of the grant and how I could write a successful application. I think having a focus on student outcomes is important and also outlining how you can develop a project that has the potential to expand in the future.

What steps can the University take to create an inclusive and diverse community?

I feel like we're moving in a positive direction with the Disability Action Plan. It's a University-wide plan, and within that there are steps that each faculty can take to build an inclusive community for individuals with disabilities - for students, and as a workplace. For teachers, I think part of that is making sure that students are aware that you are open to having consultation with them if they're having any issues in their courses. It's knowing how to support students so that they can flourish. I'm part of the Disability Action Group for the Faculty of Education and Social Work, and staff can join the Disability at Work Network.

If you could do any other job in the University, what would it be?

One of my colleagues coordinates the study abroad program - I really enjoy travelling so a job like that would pique my interest.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

I would say to not worry so much and have confidence. I think I was nervous about going to university and worried about whether I would be successful, but things just worked out.