Meeting the Needs of All Students: A First Step | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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His nickname was "seizure boy" -- not a nickname he welcomed or ever wanted. Once, while waiting for the school bus, he collapsed in a seizure and while on the ground, in the dust, the bullies kicked him until a younger neighbor intervened. His teachers weren't much better. Most of them were intolerant, indifferent, or uninterested. He dropped out of high school in the first week of his senior year.

This was my little brother who had epilepsy from the age of four until he was twelve years old. During his school years, he was frequently absent, got in trouble, and was set to the principal's office regularly. He was incessantly bullied, and, as you might imagine, developed a strong dislike for school. When he was 12, a brain surgery stopped the seizures. However, it took many years for him to catch up socially, emotionally, and academically.

In the last few years I've become aware of the impact that my brother's schooling had on me as an educator. I understand why my heart races and my palms perspire and my throat constricts when I see children -- particularly boys -- who are excluded and misunderstood. When I was a kid, there wasn't much I could do to protect my little brother from the cruelty of others. I've been working in schools for two decades, and when I reflect on these years, I see the connection between my brother's experience and my mission to create classrooms and schools where all children feel safe, valued, and understood.

Who Will You Get to Know This Year?

I share this with you because it's connected to my hopes for this coming school year. I hope that if there's a student in your class who resembles my brother -- a student who is struggling, who is an outcast, who is odd or strange or has some kind of physical, social, or emotional difference -- that you'll reach across that perceived chasm and get to know the person on the other side. I hope that you'll find out who he is and what he loves to do and how you might be able to make his daily life just a little bit easier. I hope that you'll recognize your own fears and apprehension, perhaps fears of the unknown or the "other" or fears of your own limitations to help. And I hope you'll reach out anyway.

We all have these students, these Others, in every class we teach. Sometimes it's obvious who they are (such as the kid who has grand mal seizures on the playground)-- and sometimes we're not even aware of who we've made into the Other.

Meeting the needs of all students starts with honing an awareness of who we make Other -- who we see as fundamentally different from us, who we've closed off our hearts to. For some, those others might be members of a specific ethnic or racial group; they might be recent immigrants who don't speak English, or they might be transgender children or homeless children or extremely high energy boys. Meeting the needs of all students starts with having hard conversations with ourselves about our own biases.

The only way to break down those biases is to fill our brains with more information about those we perceive as Other. As we learn more about just who people really are -- about their complexities and full personhood, our stereotypes will fracture. We will learn that the "out of control boy who won't sit still and is socially awkward" also loves animals and collects change to donate to the animal shelter and will read anything about how to care for dogs.

This year, be honest with yourself. Identify a student (or a group of students) who you've made Other and then invite one of them to lunch. Push yourself to connect, to listen, to see whom he or she really is. Meeting the needs of all students starts with knowing who your students are.

I also encourage you to reflect on who you are coming into this work of teaching children: Who are the groups of students that you're especially dedicated to supporting? Who do you identify with or particularly empathize with? Being aware of this commitment can embolden us and keep us connected to our core values, as well as help us bridge the gaps of difference.

An Epilogue to My Brother's Story

My brother eventually completed his high school graduation requirements, then graduated from college, and became a physician's assistant. He's been very successful given his traumatic childhood -- a success he credits to our remarkable mother who was a fierce lioness of love.

May all children be raised by a lioness and a lion; may all students be taught by a teacher who sees their full humanity.

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Supporting Diverse Learners
Back to School: Meeting students where they are will guarantee a better learning outcome.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

Thanks for taking the risk to share this with the community. Kim John Payne ( has a great way of exploring the ways we view difference. He represents it as:
D <-- Q --> G

The basic idea is that a Quirk (a difference) can either be viewed as negative (a Deficit) or as positive (a Gift). The way the difference manifests long term grows out of the way the adults around him or her respond to the difference.

(I'm oversimplifying here, but the basic premise is worth exploring.)

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I'm speechless. Here in NY, we start back to school next week. I'm going to print copies and give them to everyone in my department. This should be required reading every year for all teachers, new and old; we can never lose sight of this crucial element of the teacher-student-classroom environment relationship.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Have you all read the book Wonder by RJ Palacio?

Your story reminds me of that book, which explores the depth of experience of someone perceived as Other, and how teachers, administrators as peers either eased or exacerbated that feeling. Great quick read for teachers at this time of year, and I'd imagine really, really excellent to read with students.

Brian's picture

This is an amazing story that reminds me of the importance of trying to connect heart to heart with the students. Sometimes with so much to do and a limited time to accomplish the work I overlook the importance of taking the time to connect and reach the students. That you for the reminder.

Fatima's picture

This story was amazing and inspired me and gave me a better understanding as to how to deal with different learners and not ignore them, but rather learn and explore about their abilities and help them in their learning.

DTaylor's picture

This story was very inspiring. It is so important to connect with the students. This will give you a better idea of how to approach and teach the students.

Samantha Y.'s picture

I absolutely love the words you used to describe your mother: A lioness of love.
This story is truly inspiring and eye opening. As a teacher we sometimes get caught up in the frustrations and issues that stem from particular students, but we need to seek to understand before we seek to judge or allow ourselves to think so negatively. Thank you for sharing this life story and experience with us. :)

Leonard Brown's picture

Thank you for sharing yours, insights, and personal experiences. I believe that children should be valued and loved. We shouldn't shun them because of their differences, but instead we should expect them as and for who they are, for none of us are perfect. I think that the world would be a very boring place if we were all the same. As the old saying goes variety is the spice of life.

Dottie Kraus's picture

As educators we can become very focused on the subject matter and trying to include each student in the activities of everyday, that we can sometimes forget that each student has a point in time where they go outside the classroom. They may encounter bullies, or just be having a hard time. It is important to try to get to know each student in your class, their lives outside of the classroom, and check in every day. Take five minutes every morning to ask how everyone is doing, what did they do over the weekend, or just observe the students and see if someone looks/feels "off". If so, check in at lunch or sometime during the day and see if you can figure out what is going on.

Samantha Y.'s picture

I absolutely love the words you used to describe your mother: A lioness of love.
This story is truly inspiring and eye opening. As a teacher we sometimes get caught up in the frustrations and issues that stem from particular students, but we need to seek to understand before we seek to judge or allow ourselves to think so negatively. Thank you for sharing this life story and experience with us. :)


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