It’s that time of year again – time to go back to school! As teachers, students and parents make their final preparations for the school year to begin, Andrea Cahn, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Senior Director, and Betty Edwards, Chairman of the National Education Leadership Network, share an important message for the new school year:
Do you remember the bittersweet excitement at the beginning of every school year? Summer was ending, yes, but for many of us, each September meant a fresh beginning—new teachers, a pristine three-ring binder or box of crayons, crisp just-bought clothes, the promise of achievement in the air. We felt the tingle of anticipation of friendships yet unformed, great successes still to be dreamed, and new discoveries of the world and ones’ self. We set foot onto the freshly waxed floors excited to see friends, participate in after-school activities, and to learn. For others, school never quite lived up to expectations and getting on the bus in the morning was a time of intimidation and concern — and for some, school was, and still is, a simply devastating experience.
How is it that even on that first hopeful day of school, some students are shining beacons, while others are ciphers unseen by other students or even their own teachers?
The excitement for school starts at kindergarten, when the angst is often greater for the parent than the child. But that wide-eyed exuberance fades in a less supportive, inclusive school. Just as Sir Kenneth Robinson talks about our schools draining the creativity out of our students, so can the natural curiosity and joy of learning evaporate if children are not provided with the opportunity to be central to and engaged in the learning experience.
As students advance through school, that angst can be shared by both parent and child. In the August 2011 issue of Middle Ground, Angela Thomas shares her own fears as her only child enters middle school.
I did not sleep well the night before. Despite the fact I knew Shayla had all of her sixth grade school supplies neatly packed in her new book bag and was very excited about starting middle school, many of the situations that broke my heart as a middle school teacher were suddenly flashing before me with extreme force.
Would someone else be there for her if she needed help? Would she be the brunt of someone’s joke or bullying? Would my daughter now be one of the kids who couldn’t get the combination lock to work? If she had a question, would she be too afraid to ask?
Parents’ concerns are not always unfounded. Last fall, a Florida father stormed onto a school bus to protect his daughter from students who had reportedly bullied his daughter. This was even more disturbing because the girl has a disability. The father said he wished “kids would understand how much pain bullying and taunting causes other children.” His daughter had just begun middle school and has since changed schools.
Transition between schools is a challenging time for students, whether it’s elementary to middle, or middle to high, or to a new school altogether, and it’s a time when students can be “lost.” Leaving the cocoon of elementary school, students face much trepidation—some of it as simple as the idea of changing classes, or addressing the “fear” of the locker — “Will I be able to open my combination lock?” To an eleven-year-old that seemingly minor doubt can be traumatizing.
How traumatizing, too, to be a student labeled as “special needs” or with an intellectual “disability.” Someone for whom that transition from the safe, nurturing haven of home to the unwelcoming isolation of the school hallway happens every day. How paralyzing! How painful! Who could be expected to learn anything under these conditions?!
It is our responsibility to actively “be there” for students, observing, asking questions, and ensuring an environment in which each student is valued and acknowledged every step along their educational path. Dr. Thomas advised us to take the steps necessary to ensure that each student is known, that no one is a cipher.
When teachers really know their students, they know when something doesn’t feel right…Teachers need to reach out to families and share their insights…. It doesn’t take long, but it may make all the difference in a student’s life.
The beginning of the school year is a tremendous opportunity for adults in the school and community to work to ensure that each student has a positive experience at school and is engaged in his or her own learning. Project UNIFY has identified actions and structures that help provide an inclusive, supportive environment. Among those are:
- School leaders and staff:
- create an inclusive culture, showcasing the work and achievements of all, creating unified programs, and eliminating boundaries between students.
- actively encourages a sense of community among all students that promotes student engagement and relationships within and beyond the school setting.
- provide regular and frequent activities in which adults and youth work together to solve problems and learn together, promoting a collaborative climate.
- work to close gaps or division among students with and without disabilities and among the teachers who serve in the school.
- eliminate physical barriers and creates an environment that is physically accessible, safe, and supportive for all.
- All young people, regardless of ability or achievement level, are given a voice to make meaningful change in their classroom, school, and community.
- Students are activated to co-develop, maintain, and be accountable for an inclusive climate and physical environment in their classrooms, school, and community.
So, at this beginning of a new school year, let’s ensure that a student’s excitement about school grows each year not diminishes; that students are known as powerful individuals; and that each student is given the opportunity make a difference, have a voice, and be an active member of the school community. We must care—and let students know that we care. We must recognize each student’s gifts and let each one shine brightly.