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Every student is unique. How can we support all students to be successful? In giving thanks, one K-12 leader shares his perspective on how to do this.

In the season of Thanksgiving, there is much to be thankful for. I am thankful for being a member of a profession that allows for an altruistic understanding of humanity and gives me the ability to contribute to a greater cause.  I am thankful for all educators who make a difference each day in the lives of their students and the community they serve. I know your students and families are thankful for your dedication — which truly has an impact on their future.

As we break bread at the Thanksgiving feast, I’m regularly reminded of the gift of conversation and, more specifically, the opportunity to connect in celebration with others. At the same time, it is important to consider how we will demonstrate empathy for those less fortunate at this time of the year when some are, indeed, so fortunate and others are so clearly struggling?  Taking this time of reflection to advance our collective understanding and appreciation for the realities of others will make the experience of the Thanksgiving feast that much richer. 

A new study from Harvard found that — contrary to the assumption that implicit attitudes don’t change — three out of six implicit attitudes can change.  Additionally, other strategies can be employed to counteract bias.

  1. Stereotype Replacement:  Being aware when you or someone else uses a stereotype and activating two steps.  A. Labeling the response as a stereotype and B. Evaluating the response and planning to prevent it in the future.
  2. Counter-stereotype Examples: Continue to replace personal stereotypes and biases with examples of those that counter the stereotype.
  3. Individuating instead of generalizing: Individualizing goes beyond characteristics or demographics and looks at the individual characteristics of others.
  4. Perspective Taking:  Imagining what it would feel like to be in another person’s situation.
  5. Increasing opportunities for contact: Specifically, just a ten-minute conversation with someone of a different background can greatly reduce bias.  

The more you challenge yourself in conversation, the more you open yourself up to help all students.  I challenge everyone to think of a group or demographic with which you may have limited contact and plan an authentic conversation with someone from this group in the near future.  

It is important for us to provide windows, mirrors and doors to our students. Windows are the activities, resources and experiences that allow students to “look through the window” and experience someone different from themselves.  Mirrors are the ability for students to see themselves within the texts and resources they utilize. Doors are the aspirational ability to “walk through” and see themselves as part of society.  I challenge all educators to review their daily practice to provide such experiences both for themselves and for their students.  

As we sit around the Thanksgiving table and reflect on what we have to be thankful for, remember those that may be struggling or those with less to be thankful for.  One small act of kindness that demonstrates empathy, care, and humanness can be life-changing. Authenticity and vulnerability go a long way when connecting with others. How can you connect with someone different from yourself and incorporate that knowledge to support ALL students?

Matthew Liberatore

Dr. Matt Liberatore, LCPC is the director of professional learning and student services for Township High School District 214, past president of the Illinois School Counselor Association, and senior advisor to Intellispark.