“No school is too small to make a difference” – teaching compassion and acceptance to classes of all sizes
Averill Huxter is an elementary and high school teacher in Escuminac, in rural Quebec. The school is comprised of 30 students, several from Listigui First Nation, and five teachers. Some students commute more than two hours to attend school each day.
“I want my students to recognize that everyone has value, everyone has something to contribute. That differences make us better – they don’t take away from people,” says Averill. “The differences that they have make them special. If they use their differences, they can change the world.”
For her dedication to empowering her students to become a new generation of leaders, Averill was recognized by the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program (RHFSP) in 2017 as one of our educator Difference Makers of the Year.
Bringing compassion into the conversation
An unfortunate situation can turn into a valuable life lesson for students. When a snow day closed Averill’s small schoolhouse in rural Quebec, it meant postponing a presentation by an RHF Ambassador. Ambassadors are people with disabilities across Canada who provide students aged kindergarten to grade 12 with an opportunity to learn more about how they overcome barriers to accessibility and inclusion every day. Presentations are held either in person or online.
Averill had noticed her students were having difficulty showing compassion for each other in the classroom, and felt an online RHF Ambassador presentation could help. When the presentation didn’t happen on the scheduled day, it opened up a conversation among students about how obstacles like snow might impact people with mobility disabilities.
Students were challenged to think about how much more difficult it is to move around in the snow using a wheelchair. They considered how some people with paralysis have diminished sensation to the cold. They talked about designated parking spaces for the first time. One student later shared how after learning about accessibility, she now insists her father no longer use parking spots meant for people with disabilities.
When the presentation by Ambassador Marjories Aunos finally took place, it enriched the students’ conversation by adding a first-hand perspective. Marjorie has paraplegia and is a mother. Students were surprised to learn she travels and can drive a car. Because of her disability, Marjorie shared how her son is actively aware of barriers she might face. For example, when travelling together through a park, her son will look ahead and clear away any obstacles, making it easier for her to get around.
“It was so helpful because we are so rural and don’t have many opportunities for speakers,” says Averill. “I thought it was really neat that a school as small as ours could have an Ambassador present and make the same impact as a school in the city. Having someone from far away visit our classroom online and teach them to see a different part of the world from a different point of view was hugely valuable.”
Raising awareness of a world of possibilities
Averill was first introduced to RHFSP at a teachers’ conference in Fall 2015, where Rick was the keynote speaker. She recalls waving and cheering him on from the side of the road in Nova Scotia with her family during his Man In Motion World Tour.
She left the teachers’ conference with an armful of resources, but by far, the Ambassador presentations have made the biggest impact on her and her students.
“It raises awareness of the world outside of their little bubbles,” she says. “My students may not necessarily have someone in their families with a disability, but they now may be more aware of the situation when they see someone,” she says.
Averill believes RHFSP resources help facilitate good discussions and are specifically written to guide teachers through these conversations. Even if students may not appear to have internalized the teaching at first, she feels they’re thinking more about how others might feel when faced with challenges.
In addition to recognizing positive attitudinal changes in her students, she herself has been personally impacted by RHFSP and has a continued desire to share her learning with her students.
“When I think about the mindsets of people who have challenges in front of them every day and just face them, it makes me feel that I can better overcome my own personal challenges,” she says. “You can’t just teach to the crowd, you have to focus in on each child and look for their strengths and help them grow,” she says.
Becoming a difference maker
As one of RHF’s 2017 Difference Makers, Averill was awarded a certificate recognizing her outstanding contribution to raising awareness of attitudinal barriers and inspiring acceptance and empathy toward others.
She was encouraged to see the positive influence she has made in her community by introducing her principal and staff to RHFSP.
“They told me that if it hadn’t been for me, we would not have made as much of a difference in the lives of our students,” she says. While changing attitudes takes time, Averill is excited to see how her students grow over the years.
Because the resources fit easily into any province’s curriculum, they are an easy way to teach students about disability, accessibility, and inclusion.
“I would absolutely recommend RHFSP to other teachers,” she says, “The lessons are ready-to-go!”