Do unto Others: A Lesson Taught in Empathy

Yesterday I was a passive participant in a powerful educational experience. A colleague of mine, who we’ll call ‘Tom’, teaches the Intro to Special Education course in our graduate program at Hebrew University. For the last 3 weeks he’s mentioned to his students in passing that we were thinking of ways to ensure that every student gets what s/he needs and that he would let them know when we developed a plan.

Yesterday, he invited me to join his class for the last 5 minutes. As students noticed me standing in the doorway, Tom explained that we had decided to split the class into two. One section would include those who seem to catch on a bit quicker and can move ahead at full speed, while the other would be comprised of students with no background in special ed, and who appear to need a bit more support in grasping the concepts. This latter group would cover about 1/3 of the material but we felt this would be the best way to maximize everyone’s potential. Tom then put a list of 2 groups on the board and announced that henceforth one group would be mine, and the remedial group would remain with him.

Silence. Students squirmed, avoided eye contact, some turned slightly red. Tom asked if this suited them. More silence. He asked again. One student finally looked up. “No, this doesn’t make any sense.” Several of her peers echoed her objections, initially disputing their placement and eventually claiming that this wasn’t a “fair” way to do things. Most remained sitting in awkward silence. [Amusingly, one student shrugged and appeared to accept the new arrangement without objection]. And then Tom explained.

He explained that when we separate students with learning differences, this is the message we are sending. He explained that, as educators, we are not responsible for dividing our students into groups but rather for reaching each and every student in the room. To say that a student must learn separately is to announce that they have less potential, are different, are an ‘other.’ Tom also explained that, had the students looked closely, they would have noticed that the groups posted on the board were divided alphabetically.

While inclusive education may not be a model that works for everyone, it should certainly be held up as an ideal and should represent what we are always striving for. Tom reminded me of that yesterday while imparting that belief to his students in a beautiful, creative and meaningful way.

About the Author
Judah is Assistant Professor of Clinical Child Psychology and Special Education at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University. He is associate director of the Autism Center at Hebrew University and is chair of the graduate division in Special Education.