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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Boy leaning his head against a window sill looking out at the rain

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 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
Meeting students where they are will guarantee a better learning outcome.

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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.

tortellini6887's picture

What or how do you get parents and the community on board? I'm in a new community and the last 2 schools I was at had established things with parents and community?

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Tortellini6887...I think you get parents and the community on board much in the same way that you get staff and students on board. We need the why. Why does this matter to me/my child/my family? To do so, I think you bring about awareness/inform (both of the topic and the consequences) and then you start a conversation. One where everyone is invited, encouraged to ask questions, share concerns...and most importantly talk about how everyone, together, can make tomorrow better than today.

Would love to hear...how did your last 2 schools approach it? Did you like how they went about it?

Subash's picture

I can relate this story a lot to a student who is dyslexic in my wife's school and is continuously bullied by the boys in the school and every day she tells me how she intervenes along with other teachers to help her out.

Deborah Grandinetti's picture
Deborah Grandinetti
Mentor of teen inner city scholarship students

A great teaching for all of us. I appreciate you sharing your story, and plan to keep it to share, at the appropriate times, so that others will be able to see through your eyes and do what's best for the students involved.

Deborah Grandinetti's picture
Deborah Grandinetti
Mentor of teen inner city scholarship students

Just had a thought, and wanted to add that children aren't the only ones who experience this ostracizing. I was in a graduate program in education at a Buddhist university that shall remain nameless, and one of the graduate students was a transgender individual. My roommate in the program and I were the only ones who treated "Ricky" with the respect she deserved. For me, Ricky was, before anything else, a SOUL, and though her appearance and voice and words didn't exactly have congruity, it didn't matter. All Souls come from the One; we are all connected and what we do to the Other we ultimately do to OURSELVES.

Lisa Bauman's picture
Lisa Bauman
7th grade science teacher from Northern California

Thank you for this challenge. I have two very challenging male students that are definitely "other." I know in my heart that I need to show more compassion, find a connection and focus on the positive, but to be honest this often gets lost in the daily challenges of teaching. If one of these boys were my son I would want to know that his teachers were doing their best to make him feel safe and included, and so I will aspire to do just that. Wish me luck!

DSlawson's picture

Your story was inspiring to say the least! I believe that each child needs to be valued. One of the best things about being an educator is making connections with my students. I value each one of them for their uniqueness and I want them to know they are important. When they enter my classroom I want to create a culture that promotes positive, authentic relationships with one another. I want all of my students to care about each other and to understand the difference they can make make and the positive impact they can have.

Kristina M.'s picture

Inspiring is a wonderful adjective for this. If I needed a positive mental note, this is it. I am in a district where I am constantly looking for the "little things" to keep me going when I myself feel like I am being knocked down by everything wrong going on in the neighborhood, the students home life, and the district. All of that doesn't matter, what matters is who needs the little extra push, encouragement, or extra hug each day to get them going. Thank you

alextobin's picture

What a beautiful and inspiring story! I definitely believe that the first step in meeting a child's academic, social or behavioral needs is to build a relationship and rapport with the child. Although it can sometimes take a effort, it is often the most difficult students who need the most support and care. Students want to feel safe and cared for at school. I 100% agree that as educators, it is our job to inform ourselves about various disabilities and situations and connect with students.

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