This is a food blog, but also an activist blog. So today I’m posting about something that has been on my mind which is not about veganism, but about respect and tolerance in the teaching profession. It’s fundamental to my values and approach as a special education teacher in general, but lately, I have been in a number of situations which have really tested my patience and made me think even more about how it can be addressed in a broader sense.
Teachers shouldn’t be calling people, specifically students, “retarded.” For five years I worked with junior high special education students who had come to believe that they were “retarded” because this is what they had been called for so long by bullies in a variety of forms. It took years to undo the damage this did to their self-esteem and a long time for teachers to come together and institute the “R-Word Campaign” on campus. There were two situations in which adults at school actually called students the “r-word” to their faces specifically because they were in my class. When adults use this word, then students really begin to believe it about themselves. When teachers use this word with regard to their students, even if it is not directly to their faces, it further legitimates bullying.
The term “mental retardation” was originally used as a medical term, but has since been replaced by the term “intellectual disability,” since the “r-word” largely became used as an insult and a synonym for the word “dumb.” I like how the “R-Word Campaign” puts it by saying “when ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ are used as synonyms for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.” It’s bad enough when the general population uses this word, but when teachers say it, they discriminate against students with intellectual disabilities and students who are considered “dumb” by many because they receive special education services for one reason or another. For example, students with Learning Disabilities are often considered “dumb” although they possess average or above average intelligence. Many of these students actually believe they are “retarded.” Teachers need to be helping students challenge these assumptions, rather than playing into them.
On a similar note, I often hear teachers complaining about being having “SpEd” kids and “gangsters” in their classes, talking about these students with a tone of derision. Anyone who has set foot in my classroom over the past six years knows that I have historically worked with the most difficult students in the school. These students were in my classes for the entire day every day, and while there were many challenges, many of them turned around their behavior and made huge academic strides. All of these students acted the way they did because they suffered from poor self esteem, low academic skills, and problems at home. Students know when a teacher does not expect anything from them. Students who are labeled “bad” know it, and they start to live up to that reputation. What is ironic to me is how the students who need the most support often get the least attention. The students who need teachers to advocate for them are instead viewed with scorn.
There are lots of teachers who treat all students with respect and create a culture of tolerance within their classrooms. There is my friend, a junior high teacher who decided to start the “R-Word Campaign” at our school. There are schools where bullying truly is not tolerated in any form. Much like going vegan can encompass the phrase “be the change,” the language we use and the attitude we take towards all of our students can be a vehicle for change.