It’s okay to be different?


Digital Citizenship – what does it mean to be a citizen? Different – why do I have to be okay with being different?

My daughter is a goalie and anyone who has been around hockey, or any sport that involves a goalie, knows that the message is that they are a bit “different”. She cannot wait for hockey season. She enjoys a game where she gets 50 or 60 shots. She thrives on one goal leads. She’s learned to let that last goal be a distant memory and that bad game be a distant horizon. She enjoys watching the game – is disappointed when her teams don’t win and doesn’t like to see any goalie get blown away.

But that’s not really why she’s different. As a child, she had trouble with her speech. In fact, I tell the story of when she was 3 and we were shopping. Her speech was hard to understand and when she got upset, it was even worse. Imagine if you can, her in a cart in the middle of a food court gesturing as I try to figure out what she is saying.

I thought it was simple – what do you want to eat? She said something but I couldn’t understand. I asked her to point but I couldn’t get it right. I asked again and again. She got more frustrated. She began to cry. I began to cry. Alone together, the two of us standing in the middle of the food court.

Along comes sister. Asks what’s wrong. My youngest says something. To this day I have no idea what but this is what happened:

You want a hotdog?

Youngest says something

And a drink.

Head nod.

Dumbfounded stare. Tears still trailing down my own cheeks.

She wants a hotdog and drink from Orange Julius over there.

Dumbfounded stare. Younger daughter nods head.

She was different.

For many years, I am guilty of seeing her as “different”.

She was often teased and ostracized by others but it didn’t seem to bother her – she was “different” and walked to the beat of her own drum and it was “okay to be different”. As she grew older, she was an “outlier” watching the events of the playground or the room from the outside. Engaging once and a while but perfectly fine to do her own thing. We moved often for a few years and like our other children, she seemed to settle in. With a big family, she had plenty of siblings, older sisters, to help her along. As parents, we knew that the older siblings were there to help her and if any problems popped up with other students, we didn’t hear of it more than with any of the others.

Junior High arrived and, as parents, we were worried. She had been diagnosed with a Learning Disability when she was younger and had been receiving assistance for speech and reading for most of her time at school. As an administrator, I let the teachers and Special Ed teacher organize her program and I monitored it. I was sure that once she started with the more difficult concepts in math, science and English, she’d need some sort of adaptations and a different program.

She’s different.  She didn’t. She excelled at math. Loved accounting. Was pretty good at English. Oh, she needed help from time to time but she learned to ask questions, stay after school for help, and was willing to get help when needed. I guess, that is a bit different – she wasn’t worried about what others said, she wanted to understand. Oh, and then about grade 9 she began to read. And read and read. This was a child who didn’t like to read at all.

She’s different. Or is she? The question plagued me for years. Did I need to change?

She’s different.

The “label” needs to be discontinued

She’s not different. She’s is who she is.

I began to see that, in fact, she wasn’t “different” but was, well, just another person who wanted to be themselves. I began to see more and more students that way until, when with a student, I was with an individual. I tried not to label them as “this or that” although it would happen, usually when I was frustrated with the situation and, truthfully, with myself in the situation. That’s when I’d have to step back and remember the food court. What was I missing? What wasn’t I seeing, hearing, feeling? What was my position here?

I began to question the whole “labelling” phenomena that tends to permeate education, from Special Education to Gifted to Regular classroom. As I read this article by @Dowbiggin I couldn’t help but relive that moment in that food court. Not the same but as a parent/adult I felt so helpless. Yes, I teared up and my heart hurt. I’ve quit thinking of children as “normal” “different” “bad or good”. They’re all good – they’re someone’s child – and I remember how I hurt that day, felt absolutely helpless and a 5 year old helped me out.

The more I have encountered and met with students that are “different”, I’ve come to realize that they really don’t want to be okay with being different – they want to be okay. Really, we need to quit telling them it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be themselves. Different suggests there is some kind of “normal or regular” that the rest of the world fits into but they can be okay they aren’t that way.

There area so many “labels” in education to categorize people/students and tremendous amounts of time and money are spent to filter each and every student to see where they fit so they can have the appropriate assistance. But with each label comes the hangover that never quite goes away. “Oh, LD. What type? Oh, Central Auditory Processing. So, like, are there any adaptations or “special” requirements? Text to speech? Really. How does that work?”

In reality, my daughter is very capable of helping herself and, if given the opportunity, can do many things for herself. She needs different strategies to be used – the one-size-fits-all won’t work.

Change the approach

As an administrator, one of thing I really tried to convey was that, as a staff, change wasn’t just because someone somewhere thought things needed a shake-up. Change was needed because all the students weren’t getting the same opportunities and that needed to change – we needed to change so that the strategies we used and what we did each day met the needs of all the students. We needed to do what was best for students. If support or technologies or assistance was needed, then, as an administrator,  I would do my utmost to make that happen. Our PLC’s focused on improving the planning and strategies being used in the classroom through examining the different needs of the students. It meant using different technologies, like the surround-sound system in each classroom when teaching, to help ALL students. It meant planning for technology integration which meant planning for support for the integration.

It’s hard. Harder than many people imagine especially if they have limited or no experience is creating that type of change. It’s not surface change but deep, foundational change. Catchy phrases and “pump you up” quotes just don’t work. One day workshops and neat tidbits from a speaker aren’t going to endure. In fact, it’s often easier to take on the “next new flavour” rather than looking in the mirror and beginning the change process. From experience, it isn’t an easy path. But it isn’t about easy, it’s about doing what is best for students. All students.

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I am a husband, father, son.... I am currently working on my PhD in Education - Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is teacher professional development and social media integration. I have a beautiful, supportive wife who has been my partner for 28 years. We have 8 wonderful children who are amazing individuals. Together, we are exploring the world around us, sharing our stories, and enjoying the journey!


  1. I also have learned to see individuals as individuals. I recently had a conversation with a student who is often viewed by other teachers as being rebellious and disrespectful. I see him as highly inquisitive and philosophical. We don’t always hear what others are saying. We need to be open to others who can step forward and interpret for us so that we can understand better.

    The language of “different” should not be used to exclude, but rather to celebrate the strength of being unique. How I wish schools would stop trying to get everyone to be as similar as possible.

    • Barry, as an administrator, I’ve often had those conversations with students. As you say, often teachers are trying to get students to conform to within the classroom in order to cover “the plan”.

      One of the reasons I’m not fond of “different” is that it creates a situation where if it’s okay to be different, what about those who are “the same”? What does that even mean? Is it in the perception of the person making the statement of what different/sameness means? The idea of “different” is somewhat confusing, sometimes it’s okay to be different but sometimes it’s not. That’s why I like the idea of being individual – it’s okay to yourself – neither different nor the same.

    • Thanks for the article. It’s a reminder that being successful is much more than being intelligent or having certain skills. Having these only give one the opportunity – it’s how one uses them and approaches areas of growth. Some discuss it as grit and resolve. It’s the idea of failure leads to success, sometimes but you won’t know if you don’t try.

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