Early in teaching my career, as I was preparing my Grade 6 classroom one morning, one of my students showed up a little earlier than expected and pulled up a chair beside my desk.
This student looked a little tired and sad, and I asked, “Is everything OK?” The student replied, “I didn’t get much sleep last night because mom was mad at my dad for smoking pot again, and they got into a big fight.” I’ve never forgotten how I felt that day for this little student sharing this story – sadness and empathy all in one.
Over the years, I have experienced countless examples of my students sharing their stories and views from home. These stories often are quite humorous and have made my belly hurt with laughter. As much as I’ve enjoyed a good belly laugh with my students, I’ve had too many instances where sadness and heartache have also been a reality. I’ve watched, but most often listened, to a student’s language that reflects a harsh and harmful thought or view of others that they’ve picked up somewhere in their travels. Their most travelled places are at school and at home.
Section 31 of the Alberta Education Act lists the responsibilities of the student. This section has nine components that help a student understand their everyday actions and responsibilities at school. 31(c) reads – “ensure that the student’s conduct contributes to a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging, and 31(d) adds this – “respect the rights of others in the school.” Section 32 of the Act lists the responsibilities of the parent. 32(b) reads – take an active role in the child’s educational success, including assisting the child in complying with section 31. These two sections work synergistically for the benefit of the child.
I’ve had the great opportunity to spend the majority of my career in a K-12 school. The most significant benefit of being an educator in a K-12 school is to watch the student go from toddler to high school graduate. I’ve watched the genuine early love of play and acceptance of everyone evolve into something drastically different in a few short years. The youngest students will play with everyone any time, every time. But then, as they get older, things start to change. They begin to evaluate others. They start saying and acting harsher than what you’d expect to hear for their age. A caste system often forms, and friendships are determined to follow a prescribed stereotype that often confounds those not fitting their newfound mould of acceptance.
Sadly, I’ve seen the unbreakable bonds of an early friendship shatter because someone has highlighted that their friend is of a different race, religion or economic standing. It breaks my heart every time I see a student ostracized from their friend group for one of these reasons. Our homes and schools need to help our children learn to appreciate and value the beautiful diversity we have in all of our schools.
Our schools need safety, security and acceptance for everyone in them. Let’s all do our part to make our schools a safe and caring place where all our students want to be.
Darren Mazutinec is the Superintendent of Westwind School Division