Opinion Columns & Blogs

Teachers need to recognize untapped potential of their students

Educators play a pivotal role in the lives of students who enter college with different abilities.

This summer, I attended a team planning institute at The Evergreen State College. For four days, we brainstormed about ways in which we can more effectively meet the needs of a diverse student population.

The highlight of the retreat for me was the discussion on students' self-evaluations, particularly one written by a young man with a learning disability. His self appraisal spoke of his travails and how he eventually cleared those hurdles. But what really stood out was his eloquence.

Some people are naturally gifted and this man showed that gifts come in all sorts of packaging. You see, he could only communicate with the aid of technology - and this was how he shared his gift with others. His disability was truly a different ability, another form of diversity.

Diversity as a concept is rooted in historically under-represented groups along the dimensions of race and ethnicity. Other categories have had to pass the litmus test of political correctness before they were added to our collective definition. According to Simmons Associates Inc., a consulting firm, diversity, in its modern and broadest context, is defined as "recognizing, appreciating, valuing, and utilizing the unique talents and contributions of all individuals regardless of age, career experience, color, communication style, culture, disability, educational level or background, employee status, ethnicity, family status, function, gender, language, management style, marital status, national origin, organizational level, parental status, physical appearance, race, regional origin, religion, sexual orientation, thinking style, speed of learning and comprehension, etc."

Educators play a pivotal role in the lives of students who enter college with different abilities, thinking and communication styles, speed of learning and comprehension. Upon reflection, I realize that I did have students who thought, communicated and learned in unconventional ways.

One student had difficultly focusing during class (I suspected ADHD), but I also discovered that he had a photographic memory, which explained why he did so well on tests. Another student was quirky. He avoided direct eye contact and group communication (most likely a high-functioning Asperger's individual), yet he proved to be a very creative thinker and an exceptional writer.

Are these unique individual traits?

Some might argue that they are medical conditions that teachers ought not to be diagnosing. Regardless, teachers do need to recognize untapped potential however it exists, and then go the extra mile in accommodating these talents through mentoring, writing resource centers, technology aides, etc.

This is how we help special students to become successful in school and beyond.

This fall, I will teach a new batch of students, and I am looking forward to it with much "Gump"tion: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

And it's a good thing that I love chocolates, too!

Karen Champagnie Alman, vice president of sales and marketing for Alternative Business Solutions and part-time college instructor, is a member of The Olympian's Diversity Panel. She can be reached at karen@alman.us.