The directions from the conference presenter were simple, “Stand up from your chair. Go to another table next to you, one with people you don’t know, and say ‘Hi’ to them as if they are your long lost best friend from childhood.” The energy in the room skyrocketed as everyone said exuberant hellos, high-fived, and gave hugs. The presenter then asked us to return to our seats and reflect on the feeling. Most people felt positive and happy from this small activity. However, a table at the front had been asked to remain seated during the activity. Other people could have approached and greeted these people, but not a single person did. The group of people at the front felt left out and uneasy. The speaker, Mawi Asgedom, used this activity to remind us of what happens in our schools.
Many of our students are well connected at school; they have classmates to eat lunch with, they are friends with other students on their sports teams, they are not involved in any bullying. However, in every school there are what Asgedom calls the “Invisible” students. These students are not the troublemakers, but they are the ones who slip through school unnoticed and disconnected. Asgedom described his first-hand experiences with this when he came to the United States as a refugee from Ethiopia. Yet this experience of isolation at school is not limited to refugees or English Language Learners. It is something experienced by many other types of students. In a school where sports reign supreme, the nonathletic are often alienated or isolated. In a school dominated by one race, the students of other races are often shunned or ignored. This phenomenon even happens with teachers. Imagine a school where 90% of the teachers love to use technology in their lessons. The 10% who prefer not to use technology activities will often be isolated from their fellow staff members.
This isolation is often unintentional. Most students and teachers are not bullies who are trying to be unkind to those who are different. People simply get wrapped up in their own friends and their own priorities, not even seeing the “invisible” others around them. There is a relatively easy solution to this: Take the time to reflect on the invisible people in your school and find a way to reach out to each of them, one at a time. Your small gestures could make a big difference to them. Encourage your students to follow in your footsteps. It is never too late to teach kindness.