“Keeping Safe” by Michael C. Obel-Omia, November 2013
A URI colleague asked me to name a teacher’s first priority. I proffered teaching students to collaborate, think critically, or approach challenges with innovative solutions. He rejoined, “A teacher’s first priority is to keep her students safe. Custodial care reigns supreme.”
He’s correct: our first charge is to ensure that all our students learn in a safe, supportive, nurturing environment. Providing an inclusive environment allows all students to reach their potential.
The recent sordid tale of the Miami Dolphins reminded me of the importance of a safe, inclusive environment. Jonathan Martin, a behemoth of a man, stormed out of his team’s facility after a group of his teammates encouraged his sitting with them for lunch, but when he joined them, they rose as one, leaving him sitting alone, humiliated. By all accounts, this incident was part of a series of hazing, nay, bullying incidents spurred mainly by his alleged closest friend, Richie Incognito. Jonathan Martin didn’t feel safe and chose going AWOL to continuing in a threatening environment.
I don’t know all the pieces of this complex, perplexing puzzle, but as a veteran educator, I know bullying. The tormenting texts and vicious voicemails Richie Incognito left for Jonathan Martin, the puerile pranks, and the daily distress led to Martin’s leaving. In Martin’s wake, many of his teammates lamentably supported the bully. The teammates, so frightened that their horrific hazing practices may be exposed to judgment, chose to protect the aggressor rather than the victim.
In college, I helped to bring, Dr. Charles King, to campus to give students diversity training. He forced us to understand how pervasive racism is and demanded that we seek to be inclusive. For one exercise, he asked a group of students, including me, to form a circle and to keep out one other student. We worked hard, pushing that other student away from our circle, and we felt good, accomplishing the stated goal. Finally, Dr. King’s voice boomed out and admonished us for excluding someone for no good reason. Then he broke my African-American heart in twain, pointing his finger at me accusingly, “And you, who knows discrimination and marginalization, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Maya Angelou noted, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” As educators, nay, as humans, I believe that it is our responsibility to make all feel welcomed, supported, safe.
Michael C. Obel-Omia is an adjunct professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island and the Interim Head of School at the Compass School in North Kingston. He lives in Barrington, Rhode Island with his wife and three children
Originally published by WRNI on its “This I Believe” program in December 2013