Empathy is not part of the state’s standardized tests for students in public schools. So where are they supposed to learn it?
Special needs teacher Bev Shorter of Thunder Mountain Middle School in Enumclaw has an answer. It’s called the Connections Program. She’s used it at TMMS for two years, and she’s taking it up to Enumclaw High School next year.
The concept is simple. Students use an elective credit to mentor a special needs student on a specific subject. But while the concept is simple, the results can be amazing.
“When other students see them together or say hi to them in the hall” they become more accepting of the special needs students, Shorter said. “They no longer have to sit by themselves. They become part of the community. You can’t teach that.”
Special needs students perform better academically and socially with the mentors. But Shorter said some of the most growth can be seen in the mentors themselves.
“It’s not just the best and brightest. All kids participate, from the jocks to the shy kids,” Shorter said. “Maybe they are failing in behavior because they are frustrated; we’ve set the bar so high. If you can be the best you can be and take on that responsibility, you can feel successful here. It’s not just a good thing for the special ed kids, but also for their peers.”
Shorter started a similar program at Westwood Elementary a few years ago. Her special ed students would go to general ed classes to get help in certain subjects from peer buddies. She changed the program some at TMMS, with participants going through an interview process and orientation. The first trimester she had 30 applicants, and she only needed 12-18 mentors. So a waiting list started that now is up to a year.
Since Shorter will be teaching high school next year, she’s recruiting ninth-graders on the waiting list and others who know of the program to be the foundation for it. She said she’s glad she started the program at middle school.
“They are just starting to decide who they are, what their values are, what’s important to them. They are taking on responsibility,” Shorter said. “They can take that value on with them to their adult life.”
Shorter said everyone has a disability, just that some are more visible or obvious or serious than others.
“We focus on the ability of every student, not the disability,” she said. “Kids here learn we are much more alike" than different. "They support each other.”
Shorter said all students need to feel successful, otherwise they eventually give up. And state achievement tests make that hard because the bar is set so high.
“Achievement is the most important part,” she said. “Where do we teach empathy, values and compassion?”