Student Well-Being Opinion

Honoring the “Otherness” of Our Students

By Starr Sackstein — November 10, 2016 1 min read
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Recently, I had the honor of presenting the following keynote speech with ECET2 NY 914. It dawned on me after I wrote it, that it was applicable for this space as well.

So here goes:

When you look at me, you may not see an "other." What you probably see is a youngish white girl who could come from anywhere. Maybe you see someone ordinary. Someone who has a defined box to check. And then I roll up my sleeves. "What's a nice Jewish girl want with all of those tattoos?" My Jewish grandmother often asks me. "I like them. They are an artistic expression. They're me." And before my Bubbi can even finish the conversation, my mind is already somewhere else. I'm an invisible "other" like many of you in this room. My outward appearance doesn't betray me, but my mind does, forcing me to experience the world differently than most do. As a divergent thinker, I've always felt on the outside. Easily at times, able to slip into the skins of others and uncomfortably so at that, since none seem to fit the way I want. When I was a child it manifested in awkwardness that it took me a while to claim: "That girl marches to her own beat." "She's an independent thinker." "That one is really out there." Once, these phrases felt like insults, but now I wear them as badges of honor. Because I'm different, my other thrives. My secret other is my drive to change the world through education and the means I go about to do it. Education, for me, started off the same way it does for many. Remnants of my own learning intermingled with my misconceptions about what it meant to teach. I lived in that reality for a long time Or at least it felt like a long time. Because another symptom of my otherness is impetuousness and a dissatisfaction with the status quo that forces me to upend expectations, to rebel—to fight back. Seemingly adolescently so . . . But I haven't grown out of it. Becoming a parent and a middle career educator, has forced me to use my otherness for the good of many in constructive, and often frustrating, ways. Living outside the box has helped me engage countless students into a dance that encourages them out of their own comfort zones and into their own unique skins. First helping them take the labels off, and then placing their reflective glasses on. When I meet students, I don't meet grades and scores; I meet people. Interesting, vital young human persons with the promise of possibilities. It's my job as an educator to connect them to those possibilities. It's ALL of OUR jobs. Inside of the context of our work, education reform has shown itself to me through assessment and the many peripheries that entails. And it's where my otherness most connects. Despite once labeling myself as an "A" student, taking pride in the praise I received for my compliance and often my ability to game the system in my favor, I've learned that those labels are actually inhibitors, crippling creativity and damaging the hope for more. My rebellions as a child were social ones, hushed by my obsessive need to succeed within this predetermined system that had little care for my depth or sensitivity. Of course, there were teachers who saw. They sought me out. Talked to me, engaged me in conversations about my writing and books. They listened to what I thought, not because they had to but because they were interested. I was never graded on those conversations, but it was in those moments that I felt most alive and heard... accepted. When we live inside of a system that judges and scores based on arbitrary factors that have nothing to do with learning, we bastardize what it truly means to become one with our ability to grow as lifelong learners. We hamper growth. We stigmatize change. We become complacent and placated by comfort and sameness. We rob the world of our otherness. By giving students and educators another way through which they can view their progress, we empower them to see never-ending chances to "level up." We must give students the tools to recognize in themselves what they know and can do and then show them how to communicate it in a meaningful way. By teaching them the means to reflect and self-assess against standards, we provide them a framework to see progress as an ongoing experience rather than one that terminates in a grade. We help them set and accomplish goals that matter to them that endure. By disassociating letters and numbers from that experience, we liberate them from judgment and limitations; we encourage them to take risks where it matters most to them. Yet becomes a mantra because we are better than any one letter or number claims we can be. And everything is possible. Imagine what that world looks like for a second. What do you see?

As we all consider what it means to be an other, we must work hard to never judge the kids we have before us, but truly get to know them in order to better serve them as people. I was lucky enough to have teachers who put the time in to recognize what made me special and encouraged me outside of the classroom to continue writing in particular.

Since we never know the impact we will have while the those moments happen, we must treat each moment like the defining one and make it count.

How can you transform relationships with students that inspire them to pursue their otherness? Please share.

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