On a daily basis as educators, we make hundreds or maybe thousands of decisions. What method do I use to teach this math concept? Will this discipline strategy help this student understand the consequences of the decision he/she made? Will this rubric accurately measure the progress of my students? There are so many seemingly small decisions that we make that can impact a student both positively and negatively.
This is the story of a quick decision I made over ten years ago and the impact it had on a student of mine. In 2004, our school seemed to be suffering from a negative climate, and it was clear among not just our faculty, but our student body as well. A colleague and I decided it was time to offer students the chance to be part of the change we wanted to see and started a simple idea, we hosted an “open forum” after school, once and week to identify problems the students and staff saw with their school culture. From that series of conversations, we began to brainstorm possible solutions. An advisee of mine, Chandarith Moeun, saw the problem of bullying and discrimination on our list and humbly suggested “Some schools have a Civil Rights team that works on those issues, we should start one here.” The idea got added to the list, like so many others, and we continued to brainstorm. My colleague and I decided to start having Civil Rights Team meetings after school, thinking this would be a temporary group, one that would be forgotten once the current issues and students have passed through the high school. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
I have now been serving as the Mountain Valley High School Civil Rights Team Advisor for the past 11 years. We have tackled all kinds of issues in school, large and small, and every other year we host a school-wide Diversity Day event. It can be difficult to find speakers from diverse backgrounds when you are located in rural western Maine, so I used all of my connections to try to get quality speakers for last year’s event. It was then that I remembered Chandarith. We had kept in touch over Facebook and his family still lived in the area. I asked him if he would come back and speak about his time as a Civil Rights Team member and speak to his experience as a Cambodian-American student in a mostly white high school. He agreed.
I was blown away with Chandarith’s contribution. With the help of his girlfriend Corey Valois, he created an original animated video complete with soundtrack and voice over. His video is incredible insightful, personal and poignant. I implore you watch it here.
I am convinced that Chandarith doesn’t see the full power of his video. I have shown it to anyone who will sit still for more than 30 seconds and I have shared it on social media. I am so proud of his work and his novel and creative approach in delivering his message. At the end of last year, I shared this with my state Civil Rights Team Project Coordinator, and his response was equally enthusiastic. He called it “the most important thing that happened state-wide last year”. It is now being shown at every Civil Rights team advisor training throughout the state of Maine. This work has come full circle, to benefit not only Chandarith and myself, but Civil Rights Teams from across the state.
It is incredible to think that a simple brainstorming session, a little trust, and a lot of creativity can still have an impact on so many people so many years later. Don’t discount the small opportunities for change in the work you do. The ideas that seem trivial or impossible. Don’t underestimate the power of a few passionate people to make a difference that will last for years.