Reach Out to the Outcasts in Your Classroom — You May be the Only One Who Will
We don’t like to admit it, but our schools are terrible places for some students.
Whether it’s personality clashes, physical appearance, academic struggles or family history, something prevents these students from bonding with their classmates. Left alone on the playground and in the lunchroom, they alternate between wanting the friendship of their classmates and resenting the fact that their peers aren’t friendly in the first place. The best efforts of teachers and counselors result in, at best, no maltreatment of the student, but not much of a warm embrace either.
And to be honest, some teachers struggle with these students because of off-putting attitudes, awkward social behavior or an inability to meet basic behavior expectations. These students need a special kind of help; here’s how to provide it.
Remember the lonely road of the outcast
Outcasts remind us that we didn’t become teachers to work only with children who are friendly, agreeable and easy to connect with. We got into this to teach all of our students, regardless of who or what they are.
You might be the only adult who is kind to the outcast child. Think about that before you leave them to their own devices.
Be there to accompany them
I’m a big fan of Dr. Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health organization, which does life-saving and compassionate work with some of the most marginalized people in the world. Whether dealing with AIDS victims in Haiti or Russian prisoners with tuberculosis, PIH doesn’t shirk its responsibility to work with populations that others find easy to ignore.
Rather than see themselves as saviors or heroes, they consider themselves to be, as the French put it, accompagneurs to the needy. Literally, the word means, “one who accompanies,” and this means that they walk alongside and travel the same road as the dispossessed.
For the outcast in your classroom, you can do the same by listening to them as they express their frustrations and offering them advice if they need it. Don’t view yourself as someone in authority who is gracing them with your presence. You simply need to be there for them.
The outcast often has personality and physical quirks that others find off-putting — rapid-fire speech, a tendency to interrupt, a preference for “weird” music or unusual social interests. Outcasts tend to get left behind when the rest of the class moves forward — both socially and academically. This makes patience on your part all the more imperative.
Let them be themselves, and affirm their right to be different and quirky. Don’t attempt to force them into changing who they are just to please others. They may change; they may not. You can’t fix that. You can be there, though.
Look for opportunities
Given that school isn’t exactly a happy place for the outcast, search for places to go and things to do that might fall outside the bounds of traditional schooling. This could include volunteering at a local social service agency or animal shelter, joining a youth group at a community church or getting a part-time job.
Often, a child who struggles in school connects better with adults, so a small job might give them the satisfaction that they won’t find anywhere else. Remember, school isn’t the be all and end all for every student.
Colleagues may be unkind toward the outcast in both word and deed. Take the high ground and remind such co-workers that they shouldn’t treat or speak of anyone like that. I usually suggest avoiding negative people rather than engaging them, but I’d make an exception for these occasions.
Be an advocate for these students and don’t let anyone push them around. You may be the only adult who cares for them. And if not you, then who?
Help them feel special
For the outcast, the opposite of joy isn’t sadness — it’s solitude. Their phone doesn’t ring on a Friday night or people ignore their social media profiles. While other children appear to have rich and vibrant social lives, they spend another weekend night at home without a whole lot to do.
You can help offset this sense of isolation by being extra kind. Don’t hesitate to share a gentle word, recommend an important book and continue to reinforce that right now isn’t forever. This may include asking them to help out around the classroom or run an errand for you. And others will see your treatment and (hopefully) repeat it for the child.