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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Maddy McGlade's picture

I love this article so much! This is a great reminder that we, as educators, have such a huge impact on students! ! If a child is discouraged and feels like the world is against them, one charismatic adult can give them encouragement and strength, and in many cases, this adult is an educator. We can make or break students, and it is important to be that stable, caring adult in their lives, as we might be the only one investing time and care into them in their lives. For the students that are behind or developmentally delayed, it can be the most discouraging thing in the world to go to school and feel like a failure day after day. I want to make every student feel like they are excelling, and feel loved and accepted just as they are. Great personal story and impact.

Steph Cardona's picture

This article made me reflect a lot and think of who I define as "other." While this isn't something we think a lot about its more of an unconscious thought, as teachers we need to be conscious and aware of how we may be impacting students. We talk a lot about creating relationships with our students and some we may be more drawn to than others. It's important in this case to go further and connect with those students who may be seen as the "Other" and develop a relationship just as you would with any other student. Getting to know each student individually helps us learn how are students can grow and learn.

kevindean's picture

Students should feel safe at school. It's where their friends are and teachers that are role models to students. As educators it's our job to help students and further their knowledge; either if it's in the classroom, on the field, or even about life situations that have troubled them. I think being engaged and caring for your students will help them realize they can trust you.

hannah's picture

This article certainly serves as a rude awakening and also a call to action. Teachers do not like to think that they could be isolating students by labelling them "other," but as the author mentioned, we all have biases whether we admit them or not. Part of being a kind teacher, and human being for that matter, though, is letting go of one's pride enough to admit that maybe you do have biases. Once a teacher can notice his or her biases, it is time for the teacher to act. Bridges can be crossed and students can be reached who haven't been before if a teacher can only shed off their biases. Students want to be valued for who they are and teachers, who spend some of the most time with kids besides their parents, have the best opportunity to show those students just how important they are.

Megan Porche's picture

I think this is an amazing article. It really reminds me how important it is to make sure everyone in your classroom is included and feels safe. It makes me excited to have my own class and get to know everyone who walks through my door. Creating strong relationships with students is important if you want them to be successful both in classroom and in life.

Emma Byrd's picture

Elena Aguilar, I would love to hear more about how you deal with your own biases. I have a valid fear myself of how I will react on a subconscious level towards students who I see acting out with sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc and am curious if you have any advice for somebody who is so passionate about inclusion that my main bias is coincidentally against those who have biases.

Brad J d'Entremont's picture

I agree with you and Haley that we all have biases and judge people for being different than we are. If you are going to work in a profession like a teacher or others, we have to know we are as a person - are we judgemental, bias, or prejudice or are we non-judgemental, honest and respectful toward others. We have to correct our biases and judgements against others before we start to work face-to-face with others

Chris McPherson's picture

As I was reading this article, I reflected back on the different classes I have taught throughout my career. I hope I haven't made any child feel like one of those "others". I became a teacher because I hoped to make a difference in children's lives. Sure, whether we realize it or not, and not meaning to, we have probably all had a certain child in a class that we may not have treated like one of our own. Or if not us, other children are bad for pointing out a certain child because they are different than they are, or their parents may not be able to afford nice things. But all in all, every child is special in their own way and I try to treat each child as if they were one of my own.

Sue Pilling's picture

We all have or know of these students referred to as "others". It is so important to make them feel safe and a part of your class or your school environment. Getting to know each student brings out amazing traits and knowledge in which you can make a difference, not only in this child's life but the difference this child can make in someone else's life.

Class Plus's picture

I really like this post!
Just open our students, partners, parents' minds to not label, stereotype, judge;and at the same time understand and respect others. Teachers need more support and time for planning and working on those issues . Too much responsibility for one person.

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