By Amy T. Andersen, 2018 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year
Students thrive in a nurturing environment where they receive unconditional acceptance. A special interaction with one of my students in 2014 showed me that our high school needed such an environment and changed me as a teacher.
Although Ryan didn’t have American Sign Language (ASL) his senior year, he and his friends often came to my classroom for lunch because they felt “comfortable to be themselves without judgment” there. Some of the kids struggled, felt targeted, and needed a refuge. Over time, Ryan stopped coming to school, fell behind, and wasn’t going to graduate. I suggested to his case manager and his mother that he come to my room during my free period to catch-up on his work. Ryan loved being in our annual ASL Show, so I said if his attendance and grades improved, he could have a solo in the show.
I knew there were more students like Ryan who needed a “safe” learning environment. I discovered Stand for the Silent (SFTS), a national anti-bullying organization led by Kirk and Laura Smalley, whose 11-year-old son committed suicide as a result of being bullied in school. My students and I were so moved by their courage that we partnered with SFTS to start a school-wide anti-bullying campaign. Collaborating with administrators, parents, teachers, and local deaf elementary students, we planned two community awareness events where we distributed SFTS wrist bands, t-shirts and pencils. Hundreds of students signed pledge cards. The air already felt lighter.
Proceeds from our 2015 show, “ASL Takes a Stand” enabled me to bring Kirk to Ocean City. I invited every school in the county. It was the kind of presentation that cannot be described, only experienced. I remember driving home afterwards and getting calls from grateful parents. I had students telling me it changed how they looked at others.
Anna, an ASL 2 student, created an ASL video as a gift for the Smalleys based on SFTS'’s signature song “Hey Bully” by Morgan Frazier.
Kirk was overwhelmed by the video and shared it everywhere! The Deaf Professional Artists Network featured the video on its website, where it has received more than 40,000 views. The video continues to generate awareness nationwide for ASL, as well as for every child's right to a safe learning environment.
A month later, we presented “ASL Takes a Stand” to a packed auditorium with a powerful performance about courage and embracing differences. The show was a collaboration with the Deaf Community, alumni, parent boosters, deaf elementary students, and...Ryan.
I never will forget Ryan signing with a confidence I hadn't seen in the three years he was my student. I saw that same confidence grow as I watched him receive his diploma at graduation. I’m not sure if Ryan realizes how he influenced the start of a transformation in our high school, or how he influenced me to advocate for change.
Today, our "Wellness Center" provides a “safe place” for students to talk. Our high school always will be a work in progress as new students enter every year, but we strive to be a place where every student feels accepted and “comfortable without judgment.”
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