Today on the podcast, I had the great opportunity to speak with Kristel Solomon Saleem who is a passionate inclusion leader and will be one of our presenters at the upcoming SENIA virtual conference. 

Kristel currently works as the Director of Students Services at the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia. She is the Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator of Next Frontier Inclusion (NFI) and contributes to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Guidelines for Inclusive Education.  Our conversation today revolves around inclusion and how schools can build an inclusive culture. We also discuss how all of us can advocate for more inclusive practices at our international schools. Plus Kristel gives us a sneak peek into her upcoming presentation. 

Resources Mentioned in Today ‘s Show:


Kristel ‘s dedication and passion in the field of education has led her to work with a wide range of schools and organizations that ensure children have access to quality education so that they may find their individual pathways to excellence. Her personal commitment to leading has allowed her to work closely with the Next Frontier Inclusion (NFI) as their Asia-Pacific Regional Coordinator, The Special Education and Inclusion Association (SENIA) and contribute to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Guidelines for Inclusive Education. As a workshop leader, Kristel endeavors to develop and support teacher self-efficacy in their work with all learners. Her belief in the possibilities and unseen potential of a lifelong learner has led her to explore the physiological and neurological makeup of individuals in order to gain a deeper understanding of our students and enhance our role as educators. Kristel is a graduate of Temple University with degrees in Elementary and Special Education and a Masters Degree in Educational Psychology. She is currently pursuing an additional graduate certification in Mind, Brain, and Teaching from Johns Hopkins University.


Connect with Kristel

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour, where you get 1 hour of learning in less than thirty minutes.

Lori: Hey everyone it’s Lori Boll, your host of SENIA Happy Hour Podcast. Today I had the great opportunity to speak with Kristel Solomon Saleem, who is a passionate inclusive educator and leader, and will be one of our presenters at the upcoming SENIA virtual conference. Kristel currently works as the Director of Student Services at the KAUST School in Saudi Arabia and our conversation today revolves around inclusion and how schools can build an inclusive culture, and how all of us can advocate for more inclusive practices at our international schools. Plus, Kristel gives us a sneak peek into her upcoming presentation. I know you’ll enjoy today’s conversation. And now… onto the show!

Hi, Kristel! Welcome to the podcast!

Kristel: Thank you  so much for having me, Lori.

Lori: Oh, we are so excited to have you. You’re coming to us today all the way from Saudi Arabia”¦ what brought you to Saudi? 

Kristel: You know, we have become this family of adventure… I guess, you know, thinking about how do we continue this life of stability and bringing and infusing the adventure with their two boys. And after being in Hong Kong for 10 years, we said “okay, it ‘s time. Let’s see what else is new!” And you know, KAUST was up and looking for, you know, two educators for my husband and I and he said all right, here we are, let’s do it! 

Lori: oh that’s cool. I, I taught in Saudi Arabia myself many years ago and I have such fond memories and hope you’re enjoying it!

Kristel: We are, we are! KAUST is in its 10th , 11th year, so, so being able to kind of come in again at some of the early stages of a, of a younger school and being able to be part of that is really exciting.  

Lori: Yeah! Well, speaking of that, before Saudi, you were at Hong Kong Academy and you and Jennifer Swinehart hosted our last live SENIA conference”¦ In Hong Kong and”¦ I know, that was our last live one because of COVID”¦ thank you very much”¦ 

Kristel: Wow”¦ wow!  

Lori: But so now you’re, you’re currently serving as Director of Student Services. Is that correct? 

Kristel: Yeah, yeah, that ‘s correct.

Lori: okay, okay.  And, what, what does that role entail at your school?

Kristel: So it’s, it’s quite a big role and exciting one in that it allows a number of Student Support Services to come together under one umbrella. So this is including Counseling Services, Learning Support, we have an intensive needs program that goes through school. We have English Language Learning support there as well as talent and enrichment so it’s really kind of accessing those in addition to the therapies that we ‘re able to provide and figuring out, how do we integrate all the services we provide and more importantly, incorporating the whole school so all of us are working together. So it’s yeah it’s an exciting role. 

Lori: Yeah, like you said, a very big job. Kind of all-encompassing, right? 

Kristel: All encompassing, yeah.  

Lori: Would you say most international schools have this position? 

Kristel: You know, I think that, I’ve seen an increase of it probably over the last five to six years. I think I’ve seen it more in kind of a coordinator position where maybe they also have some teaching responsibilities and what I’ve noticed now as schools start to understand how complex and really how involved the rules are, that it really allows for, kind of more of an administrative position. It also means that there’s a voice at the table for other administrators and so being able to make some, you know, mission-driven decisions and be a part of that strategic planning.

Lori: Yeah, I think  that’s so important to always have that someone at that table with that lens of student support in any way shape or form”¦ it ‘s essential. So I ‘m glad that more and more schools are building this in. 

Kristel: Yes, definitely. 

Lori: So, let ‘s talk about inclusion. Okay, at our upcoming SENIA virtual conference, you will be presenting a session entitled “Leading the change for greater inclusion”, and we’ll get to that in a bit but first of all why do you have such a passion for this inclusive education? 

Kristel:  You know, there’s, there’s so many influences but I would say at the core of it, I grew up with a”¦ my uncle, a family member who had some pretty intensive family needs, a special needs, and what I understood as a child was that he was part of our family. There wasn’t any sort of distinction between whether or not he should be part of things or shouldn’t be part of things. The whole family really embraced him and it was actually only as an adult when I met my husband, and he came to visit us and I didn’t say anything to him about it”¦ I didn’t say “oh you know my, my uncle, he may have a seizure” because he would have, he would have grand mal seizures and didn’t really think to say anything. And he said, “isn ‘t that important?” And you know, actually we just haven’t really thought about it. And he was… it was always really important that he was treated as a family member, as somebody who deserved as much time and energy, as you know, everybody else in the family. And so it was really important to me when I was in education and getting into education, that how do we create settings for all of our Learners where they feel valued, that they feel incorporated, but at the same time recognizing that sometimes they just need something that’s very specialised for them. But not that should exclude them from their peer group or from having access to as many opportunities that are appropriate. 

Lori: That’s great! And I think you’ve been in some pretty unique situations possibly, being at Hong Kong Academy and now KAUST, where they do serve so many Learners of all… of all types so, what or how, how did you happen to find a school or did you, were you brought in to build these programs yourself?

Kristel:  You know, I think a little bit of both. So when we started, my teaching in the U,  and it was diverse in a different way”¦ so in terms of socioeconomic status and kind of looking at a special needs as well as students who had some more behavioral challenges and, and that side of it. And then thinking “okay well where else can this go,” and when we decided to move overseas, we went to the international school in Nigeria and they hadn’t started a formal programme and so I went there to kind of help develop that. 

And then, when we transitioned from there to Hong Kong, Hong Kong Academy was such a special place because that was the intention as the school was founded; it was meant to ensure that it was an inclusive environment for all learners, so part of that work was already done for me. And that, that was the mission and vision of the school and that’s not always the case for international schools. 

So kind of thinking about how do you take that momentum and recognize the nature of international schools, people are coming from all different backgrounds,  are coming from different pedagogies, they’re coming from different approaches and even defining inclusion is very different. And then going to KAUST and again,  a young school but not necessarily the same history, and so how do we ensure that the setting for the admission process, where we really accept many, many students, that we still are being intentional about setting up a process in a program that is going to support our Learners. And not just able, be able to take them, we’ll figure out how to do it later, but really be thoughtful and methodical about making sure that we are prepared for all of our learners.  

Lori: Yeah, and again your title is “Leading the change for greater inclusion”, I’m going to ask a question, I don’t know if this is going to throw you or not”¦  but if you were to give advice to a teacher in a school or parent at a school who want their school to be more inclusive, what would that be? Or perhaps a better question might be, can one person make a difference when advocating for inclusive education if they are not a school leader?

Kristel: That ‘s a really good question, you know, I think that there’s a couple of really important things to factor in whether you’re a leader or if you’re in a position where you may not have as much influence and it’s it’s being able to start conversations with people that share similar beliefs and values. And one of the things that draws us as educators together is that more often than not, we are in this field because we feel that all children have a right to a high quality educational experience, and that all of them are deserving of opportunities for success. And if we kind of come to the table with sharing those, those insights, it no longer becomes “this is what I want” versus “what you want”. 

And so to be able to say, okay, well yeah you you would have had a teaching experience where you know that it was really difficult for you teaching a certain student or for a student to be able to be part of a classroom and your heart went out to them, and you just, I don’t know how to do it and then when you’re able to start connecting with people on that level, it ‘s like, we agree about this. Where do we, where do we start? And let’s take it step-by-step, and the change is on a continuum, you know. 

And I think sometimes we get really overwhelmed by saying, well if you’re not here, then it can’t happen if there’s too much. But we can take it step-by-step and we can say you know maybe it’s “how do we influence change in our classroom”, “how do we create experiences”, where even inviting my colleagues to come in and see something that I’m trying and then they get to try it and it builds from there and then bringing your, your, your admin team just to look at what we’ve been able to do. So sometimes it can start from that level but it can also come from at a leadership level and saying you know, why can’t we be leaders in this field, why can’t we say that we’re not just doing it but we’re proud to do this and you know we’re really making a change for our families. 

Lori: Yeah, well, what, what would you say are the biggest barriers for international schools becoming more inclusive?

Kristel: I think the fear of”¦ somebody said it to me in this way, the fear of attention deficit I think, it came from Kevin Bartlett, it’s this idea, or Bill Powell, and the idea that that if we start to accept quote-unquote “these students” which we know are already part of our diverse population whether or not we want to acknowledge and recognize that, then what happens to my child? And does that mean that all of the attention is going to this student or that student and not mine? I think there’s this concern that somehow, you know, every parent wants what’s best for their child and they feel that maybe that’s a threat if in some way, the school wasn’t able to manage it with staffing appropriately or or being able to give the teachers the skills to differentiate appropriately so that all Learners have everything. So I think there’s, there’s layers, they are but that’s definitely one of the community pieces that sometimes comes up. In end, the perception that the level of rigor out of school will be compromised if somehow we cater to the full continuum of learners, right?

Lori: And at KAUST, you have an intensive needs program which I think is pretty exciting, and and quite a few of those are popping up around the world now so I’m really excited about that. And just a quick plug for SENIA, at the upcoming conferences, we are going to have an intensive needs strand to help other schools maybe see how, how important that is and build that understanding and capacity for accepting students of all abilities, so very exciting stuff. You also mentioned Bill Powell and Kevin Bartlett who are well, founders I guess, of Next Frontier Inclusion. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that since you’re involved too deeply with them? 

Kristel: Yeah, so NFI has been such an important, Next Frontier Inclusion, has been such an important part of my journey as an educator, my journey as a leader, and that was actually after participating in a conversation, because they call the conferences “conversations”, probably about 10 years ago. And I was just taken aback at how the work that we were doing together was about carrying on conversations that were quite generative and sharing ideas and leaving, which happens sometimes after you leave a conference, either feeling really excited and inspired but worried about what happens next or saying I’m so drained and now what? And I was feeling very very excited, and I had ideas about what our next steps could be and and making sure that teachers felt that it was possible and so that is, that is still very much their goal as an organization, to ensure that there are there’s an inclusive school in each major city around the world so that families do feel that they can travel with their whole family and not say they can’t take this job where they have to leave a child at home with somebody else or something like that. So if there’s work to be done but the mission and vision of it is still very real and very inspiring. 

Lori: Yeah, it is definitely inspiring. Let me just jump a little bit to building that inclusive culture in schools. And I know NFI works a lot on that, but how do we begin to build that inclusive culture in schools who might be beginning this journey? 

Kristel: Yeah I think there’s a, kind of, coming back to where, where do we find ourselves on the same page? And it’s always really helpful to find out where our similarities are, it allows conversations to be safe, it allows us to connect with one another, and then figure out what is it that we want to talk about and if that’s inclusion, why is it important to all of us the table? And now let’s discuss the how.  Sometimes I find that we go the other way around and we start with how do we become more inclusive and we start getting into more of the kind of the technical changes versus more the transformational is where it really is about who are we, who do we want to be, who do we serve, and why is it important to us? And that really is that culture; that’s that intangible piece of why do I feel good about coming to work everyday. Why do I feel that I can invest in the vision and the mission of the institution that I’m working with and that I’m honoring not only the work that we ‘re doing and the people that I’m with, but who I am as an individual. 

So I find that if we’re able to kind of start with, one of the my favorite resources is looking at Dilts ‘ Nested Levels of Learning, and you know that that, visual and having identity at the top and then going into those beliefs and values and even surfacing assumptions, then starting to move into more of those capabilities, really just allows us to find out where we ‘re similar, and how do we align ourselves, and then figure out how do we talk to those pieces that make us maybe approach things a little bit differently. 

Lori: Great! And I know you’re going to be talking a lot about that during the SENIA conference, can you give us a sneak peek into what else you’ll be sharing? 

Kristel: Yep! You know, I hope to share not only kind of the philosophical piece which is kind of that, feel good moral impetus kind of, get everybody motivated from that side. But also transitioned into what are some of the technical pieces that just allow us to work together and kind of, more of a systems approach. And this is something that you know, I’ve continued to and in different presentations really spend a lot of time on, because when we are working kind of individually or in silos or kind of in separate departments, it’s really hard to kind of keep it going, keep that momentum going. 

We also find that we’re doubling up on work and one thing that we know we’re always short on time so, how do we then approach, kind of, systems in a very practical way to say okay, how do we make sure our time is being spent well, what types of meetings can we have that allows everybody to feel informed, that things are transparent, that using our time wisely? The work that comes out of adaptive schools has been just absolutely, again, transformational in terms of just how do we connect with each other, what are those norms that we use for communication,  and education is a community. Collaboration doesn’t happen on its own, just because we put people together in a room. The really kind of addressing those points that can sometimes just feel like sticking points we ‘re trying to make progress, so I hope to kind of get them to both that philosophical feel good kind, and think about some of the theories that exist and, where does research sit as well as what is that mean when I go to work everyday.

Lori: Well that’s perfect, I think that is a great place to end this conversation today. Thank you Kristel for such a great talk and your time

Kristel: Thank you so much! Really looking forward to connecting with you again in a couple of months. 

Lori: Can ‘t wait!

Kristel: Okay, take care! 

Thanks for stopping in to SENIA Happy Hour, don ‘t forget to head over to SENIAinternational.org/podcasts and check out our show notes from the discussion today. We at SENIA hope you ‘re enjoying these podcasts. There ‘s so much to explore and we ‘re at the very beginning. So feel free to drop us a note and let us know what you ‘d like to hear more about during your next SENIA Happy Hour. Until then”¦ Cheers!