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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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.

Joshua Bostick's picture

Ive had a personal experience with this when i was in high school, there was a kid who was special needs in my class. It was his first time getting out of special needs and he wasn't quite getting the material. He kept making a weird face in class when didn't know what was going on and everyone made fun of him because the material was so easy for them. I felt bad for the kid but i did notice he was getting smarter.

oliviabrees's picture

As a future educator I hope I am able to provide that sort of support and care for all of my children. It is the little things that can change a person's day from a bad to a good day. As a teacher I will understand the importance of students feeling as though they are in a safe environment. It is our job as educators to provide that safety blanket, and help all of our students understand the importance of kindness.

Emily Elliott's picture

Looking back over my schooling I see a pattern of bringing unlikely groups of people together and creating community. Being in music helped with that tremendously. The group oriented enterprise that is choir or band brings a bunch of people together and has them working toward a common goal. Music helped me particularly because we moved around a lot when I was a kid. I changed schools every three years or so and had to start over in a new town. Having experienced being different and changing environments so often I believe that shaped my ability to be open to new people and welcome them to the fold. My lunch table was always open and was a safe place to land. I look forward to a classroom environment where I can offer a safe and comfortable place to land for my students as well.

emgutierrez's picture

Looking back on when I was in school, I am able to see now how one little comment from a teacher could make my day so much better. As a future educator I hope that I will be able to make a a student's day better with just checking in with how they are doing.

Amanda Conrade's picture

Students look up to their teachers, even now in my senior year of college, I look up to my professors. Hearing kind words from them and knowing that they are there for me always helps when I am having a bad day. As a future music educator, I hope to instill a culture of community rather than competition where everyone works together as a team to create the finished product. This blog also brings up something I heard from my previous orchestra teacher. She told me that some students are harder to connect with than others, but those students are the ones you tend to have the greatest connection with in the end. As a future music teacher, I will hopefully see students for more than a year, which will give me the opportunity to connect with every student who comes into my classroom, even those who are hard to connect with when you first meet them.

Reece Loridon's picture

I can only hope in my future career that when I have students in the Other in my class, I will be able to stand up for them. I want to show my students that I will be there for them at all times no matter the circumstance. Making sure my students are safe mentally and physically should and is always the most important thing.

Nmadison's picture

When I look back at my school experience, I can think of a few students that I would talk to because I could see they felt alienated during the school day. What a difference it was once I got to know them and introduce them to more people. I plan to continue this as an educator. I plan to meet their needs because school should not be a place where any student should feel ashamed of who they are, left out, or behind. It starts with us, the facilitators and hopefully our students will join in and leave the bullying behind.

mestephens's picture

Right off the bat, as a future educator, I feel drawn to help students who need a little extra guidance or attention regardless of the reasoning. I like in this post how the author addresses this student could be anyone with a number of different types of needs, not necessarily just our students who it's severely noticeable or hindering. The most important thing, in my opinion, even in severe cases is to ALWAYS remember these students are children first. It is so vital to develop a relationship and build trust. If you talk to your student's parents and have their permission, I feel like discussing a student's condition or situation, especially that draws attention, with their classmates could help develop empathy and prevent a lot of bullying if done well. This opening story tugged my heart strings a bit and I'm really glad to read that post-school years became really successful for the young man!

Brielle's picture

In the practicums I have been in so far, I am always drawn to the students who are struggling with their academics and emotions. This article touches on a topic that is near an dear to my heart- the underdogs.

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