By Dr. Dexter Wakefield I, Director of Diversity and Inclusion – National FFA Organization
Long ago, I watched as a young, short, and weight-challenged little boy stood on the edge of a basketball court holding a ball in his hands. He looked forward to playing in a pickup game with the other boys on the court. He knew he would be picked for a team because he was one of only ten kids on the court. As the two captains selected their players, he saw everyone around him being chosen. His excitement grew as the final selection was about to made, but just then another boy was seen coming down the road to the park. He watched as the team waited for the other kid to make it to the park. The little boy was not selected. He took his ball and walked home, crying inside.
In reflecting on this story, take a moment to remember a time in your life were you felt excluded from the group. Was it because you were too short, too tall, too slow, had the wrong “look”, weren’t attractive enough or were educationally challenged? How did it make you feel? Many people fail to relate their past experiences to issues of inclusion and diversity because these feelings of being excluded have been suppressed in a corner of the mind.
It’s our role as educators to ensure every student who comes into our classroom has the right to learn, succeed and reach his or her full potential. Agricultural education and the FFA provide opportunities that can appeal to all students. What separates good teachers from mediocre ones is the ability to remember the feelings he or she had when they experienced exclusion and to utilize them to empathize with each student. Good teachers see past the physical, mental, psychological or emotional constraints that can hinder students from performing to the best of their ability in or outside the classroom.
Teachers, as you view your classrooms, think about how you felt when you were treated “differently” as a child. Those are the same feeling some kids live with daily. We need to push and guide them to their full potential. Remember that diversity and inclusion are not about change—they are about opportunity. Leveraging diversity and inclusion can help us find potential in all students and utilize their differences to make them more successful. Recalling our past “feelings” can help us make a difference in the lives of others.
Remember that young, short, weight-challenged little boy I described? An agriculture teacher changed his life by helping him see his full potential through competitive FFA activities. Because of this teacher, that kid came to believe he could succeed no matter how people viewed his physical differences. That kid graduated from high school, grew to be 6’3”, secured a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State University and earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Purdue University. And he was fortunate enough to garner a host of basketball and baseball trophies. Yes, I am that kid, and I thank my agriculture teacher, Mr. Freddie Wakefield, Sr., every day.