Friday, June 30, 2017

A Letter About Character

Dear Teachers, Educators and Others in the Educational System;

Thank you. You have taught me a lot over the last 10 years. Yes, you've taught me math, and I've taught you "better" ways of doing that same math. You've taught me science and I've expanded upon your lessons to the university level and beyond. But most importantly, you've taught me about character, and now I'd like to take the chance to talk to you about some of those character traits that have been emphasized so much over the past 10 years, and how I've experienced them on my journey.

You might think of me as one of your "problem students". From grades 4-8 I've missed an insane amount of school. You see, in grade 3, I was diagnosed with severe Crohn's Disease, and would spend a fair amount of the next few years just trying to get that stabilized. While trying to get that figured out, I started having major, tear-inducing pain in my joints leading to a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and potentially arthritis. Simple things that the majority of my classmates do without even hesitating, bring me great pain. Just standing up out of bed in the morning brings enough pain for me to have tears and sometimes scream out. When I walk, I have a tendency for my ankles to pop slightly out of place. Over and over again. Unfortunately, for school, this means that I struggle physically just to be there. I miss a lot of classes, and of course as a teacher you have no idea when I might be coming back so there is no ability to plan for my absences. I can empathize that it must be difficult on the days that I do show up and you need to figure out what to do with me. Remember, it's hard for me too. I leave when you're teaching one unit, and often on my return, we're doing something completely different and I have to find out, once again, where I fit in and how best to get up to speed. We really are in this problem together, so we need to work together to find solutions.

Inclusiveness. I have heard this word so much and I think it's really easy to throw this word around but under the surface it can be hard to actually be inclusive. Inclusiveness is the act of including everyone, to the best of their abilities, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or physical limitations. It's about honoring the fact that every single one of us has something of value to contribute. It's about having policies and programs that represent everyone's needs and allows them to get the best possible education, and to have a positive experience while doing so. Why is Inclusiveness so important? Because we all matter. One of the basic human needs according to Maslow, is the need for belonging. I want to feel that I matter. I want to feel like I am important. The classroom plays a huge role in this because this is where I will spend the majority of my years growing up. This is where I first learn about those differences in a larger setting outside the home. Every day that you have a group of children sitting in front of you, is another day that you have a chance to not only teach inclusiveness but to actually live it. You see that child that is sitting on the sidelines? You can invite him back into the group. You know that someone is really struggling at home? Taking a few seconds to ask if there is anything you can do to make it easier can let a child know you care. You see a child who is physically struggling to hold back tears of pain? Reassure them that you're proud of the effort it takes just to be in class. Find a way of including a child who frequently misses school in group projects, rather than making them do everything on their own. When planning for a class trip, you should give thought to the physical abilities of your students. For example, my grade 8 graduation class trip was to an Outdoor Centre, which I wouldn't have been able to participate in due to accessibility issues. I wasn't well enough to attend anyway, but it would have felt a bit more "inclusive" if they had even considered the known fact that I had physical limitations when they were planning this trip. It hurt a bit. Little things can make a huge difference and make each of us feel included.

Diversity. Each of us students enters the school system bringing with us a whole range of experiences both good and bad. We bring a range of abilities; some of us will be the future Usain Bolts, others of us will do good if we don't trip over our own feet. We all come with different levels of skills at the different subjects and different ways of learning those skills. To value diversity, you need to sometimes think outside the box for new ways of reaching everyone and accepting the different unique talents that come to your class. It's not just the students' skills that are diverse, but also the problems that they bring to the class. Class lessons may benefit from finding a way to work with this diversity. It's a learning opportunity for other classmates to be able to learn how they can combine all of their unique skills together to benefit everyone. Celebrating differences can make people like me, who have quite unique situations, feel valued and included. And we all like to feel that way.

Acceptance. At the most basic we are human, which means that we are all equal. You teach us that we are supposed to accept everyone for what we bring to the table, for who they are and where they are on this wonderful path of life. You teach us that regardless of our differences, we are all part of the same community. Acceptance doesn't mean that you have to like whatever it is you are accepting, instead it means that you accept it as the reality. For almost 3 years, I have vomited daily. I am not trying to be difficult when this happens or when the extreme nausea and the pain take over. This is just my physical reality. I am sick. With a chronic illness. This means that I am going to suddenly stand up and leave class when my best efforts at controlling my symptoms on my own fail. I don't want this to be happening, but this is my reality so I must accept it. Unfortunately, I often felt guilty for disrupting the class, over something that was completely out of my control.  Sometimes I don't look sick, which I've often felt has worked against me. It's easy to forget that a person can be seriously struggling personally when there are no visual reminders, and I've found that it frequently leads to a lot of wrong assumptions about my health and abilities. The schools need to accept that they don't often know what the student is personally struggling with, whether it is something at home, something on the playground, or something as serious as their health. No child should feel less of a person because of their personal circumstances.

Respect. You've taught us to wait our turn, to listen to one another's opinion and compromise, to honor our differences and take pride in our and others' accomplishments. Feeling respected is something that we should all expect to feel in our day to day interactions with each other. Respect is more than just a word, it needs to be shown in actions as well as words. Teachers are in a unique situation to be able to model of integrity by not only teaching respect but also embodying it in their everyday interactions. Your words and actions matter. I've had experiences of feeling both respected and disrespected, and feeling disrespected always made everything about the day harder, something I really don't need to have happen since my days are hard enough. Respect is such a simple thing that it should really be the base for all interactions with others.

Lastly, I want to talk about Empathy. I don't want you to feel sorry for me. Instead, I want you to try to put yourself into my shoes and try to understand where I'm coming from each day. Each of us face unique challenges in our lives. I started my grade 4 year at a new school, not knowing anyone, and had just started off my Crohn's journey. In the next 5 years I had 6 major hospitalizations (a month or more), 17 Operating Rooms Trips, and countless medical appointments. This meant that in grade 4 I missed 74 days of school. In grade 5, I missed 76 days. In grade 6, when my daily vomiting started I missed from October onwards. In grades 7 & 8, I only had a handful of days. It impacted my relationships with other kids, and effected every area of my life. I know it's hard to really even imagine being a kid and going through all of that, without having had first-hand experience. Chronic illness is often an uncomfortable subject. It's hard to know what to say to someone who is going through something unimaginable. Just listening and asking questions is all I need to tell me that you are at least trying to understand. You can never go wrong when you come from a place of kindness and compassion. Teaching empathy helps to encourage students to change the world for the benefit of everyone, and is an extremely valuable lesson.

I came to you this small 3 year old child for Junior Kindergarten (my birthday is in December so I'm usually the youngest in the class), and now I leave grade 8, still smaller than my classmates, but with a huge appetite for improving the way this world works. I hope that my reflections on these character traits can help advocate for the needs of other students like me, who don't fit into the typical mold of a student. You as educators have the power to teach and model these important traits, so that others will grow up into responsible young people capable of achieving anything. After all, it was the skills that you taught me that have allowed me to become the young advocate that I am today. Thank you.

Jacob Ralston

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