As the daughter of immigrant parents from war-torn Lebanon, Ronda Chamma knows just how important it is to feel connected and supported at school.
“I felt a little different to my peers at school and I remember feeling more vulnerable than them, too. Having felt that vulnerability, I understand what a lot of kids go through.
“It’s so important to have teachers who can recognise a child who is at risk and help them manage their feelings of disorientation and anxiety. It can make a huge difference to their lives.”
With that understanding firmly in mind, Ronda has spent most of her working life helping children with additional needs.
After studying behavioural science at La Trobe University around 20 years ago, Ronda worked in a wide range of roles – including as a play therapist at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
In 2019, she cemented her commitment to inclusive education, returning to La Trobe to enrol in a Master of Inclusion and Diversity.
Ronda now juggles part-time study with caring for her two sons – Hayden, 8, and Lincoln, 11 – along with her role as a visiting teacher, specialising in supporting students with autism.
“I observe how students with disabilities and learning difficulties interact in the classroom, and then use this to provide teachers with strategies to help them improve things further for the child.
“Sometimes it’s just about tweaking what the teachers are already doing and finding some universal design learning strategies that work for the whole class and specifically for the student.”
By establishing positive relationships, finding personal connections and creating a safe environment in the classroom, Ronda believes at-risk children can thrive at any school.
“With the right supports, they’re not limited to only being able to go to a special school.”
Ronda is firmly focused on bolstering the knowledge and experience she has built up in the classroom.
“I wanted to know that I was doing the right thing as a visiting teacher and to understand the theory behind it. I wanted to ensure that I was up-to-date with the latest research and evidence-based best practice.”
Working in a field where specialists are hard to come by, Ronda received a Department of Education and Training scholarship from the Victorian Government to complete her post-graduate degree.
“It’s a program that aims to have a masters-qualified inclusive education teacher on staff at every Victorian state school – which is such a good thing for students.”
As a single parent, Ronda has encountered many financial barriers in returning to study. Earlier this year, she was awarded a Flo Robinson Education Memorial Bursary to purchase a new home computer.
Administered by the Bendigo Tertiary Education Anniversary Foundation – and established through an initial donation by the late Miss Flo Robinson, a former principal at Kangaroo Flat Primary School – the bursary supports female students from regional Victoria studying education.
“The bursary came at a great time, as I was trying to complete assignments on an old laptop that I was sharing with my boys while they were learning from home because of the pandemic.”
After delving into topics like inclusion, equitable customs and diversity, her studies have reinforced where Ronda wants to take her work.
“I want to research how classrooms across Victoria can be restructured to better suit children with special needs.
“Understanding children’s needs is complex, but I would like to support all teachers to recognise the individuality and diversity of all children in the classroom to ensure full inclusion for everyone.”
Ronda says it can be difficult for teachers to provide a range of supports to children and young people with varied abilities in their classroom.
She doesn’t believe the path to including all kids lies in telling teachers what to do, but rather building on what is working well for them now.
“It’s really about working with what they already know and the system that they are working within, and moving the goalposts slightly so that it accommodates a lot of the kids’ needs and they aren’t singled out.”
Though Ronda finds the juggle of work, study and raising children a challenge, she knows she’s exactly where she should be.
“I just reflect on my time being the only Lebanese student at school, and how valuable it would have been to have a teacher who understood the challenges of not entirely fitting in.
“If I can help even one student develop more confidence and realise their potential, it will be worth all the study and hard work.”