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Mirror, Mirror....

Marco Iaboconi’s recent book, “Mirroring People: the new science of how we connect with others”, suggests we are wired to connect with people we find to be similar to ourselves. When we meet people, we look for commonalities, and try to see if they are “like” us. When we want to make a good impression, we unconsciously (or consciously) mimic those we want to impress.

This explains a lot of the social conformity we see. We do not NEED someone telling us we must dress the same way. We do it because the drive to be accepted is so strong. And if someone “looks different,” whether adult or child, they are likely to be ostracized. I remember when I was in the fifth grade a new child entered the school after the year had begun. She dressed shabbily and could not make any friends. Her crime was that she looked different.

So as we watch this presidential campaign, we can see both sides trying to make the opposing candidate “different” from the majority of voters. Obama is described as “different” because his skin is a different color, he grew up in Hawaii, his father was an African, and he spent several years in Indonesia as a child. None of these things should, on a rational level, disqualify him from consideration. In fact, I would think that they would enhance his stature as someone comfortable on the world stage – a powerful thing for a presidential aspirant.

But when we listen to the voters ponder Obama, in person and in various media, we find echoes of fears rooted in his differentness. “He might be a Muslim.” In spite of the controversy over his Christian pastor, some 15% of Americans still think Obama might be a Muslim. Fox News contributed to this misconception early on, but there was a well of suspicion already available to be tapped.

Of course Obama is not “different” from everyone, and many find they can readily identify with him and his story. He has, after all, written two books describing his past and his approach to politics, allowing us to enter his world and understand it. Many African American voters certainly identify with him, and in my work in Oakland I frequently see evidence of support for his candidacy in the homegrown t-shirts being sold in the neighborhoods.

On the other side, Senator Obama’s supporters also try to highlight the ways in which John McCain is different from the rest of us. He owns seven homes from coast to coast, and 13 cars – clearly he does not share our problems and cannot understand them, they insinuate. This was not a problem four years ago when John Kerry was the Democratic candidate, with his weathy wife and multi-millionaire running mate.

The truth is we tend to like people with whom we can identify. As teachers, this leaves me wondering about how we relate to our students. I try not to “like” one student more than another, or to allow my affection for any of them to affect how they are treated. But I know there are some students that remind me of the bullies who picked on me in elementary school. There are others who remind me of myself in those days, and I feel myself coming to their defense.

As I reflect on this natural tendency, I think the answer is not to stop identifying with some of my students, because I think my empathy comes from this identification. Rather, my goal is to empathize, understand, and identify with each of them, regardless of their background or behavior. This is much more easily done with those who share my background, but I have found I can understand, empathize and identify with others as well, -- even the bullies. That does not mean I tolerate bad behavior or cruelty. It means that when I correct those behaviors, I do so with some understanding of the insecurity that drives it, and in ways that help the students understand that I am trying to help them all learn and be successful. This is especially important when we seek to reach students with an ethnic background or gender different from our own.

This phenomenon also works in the other direction. Our students can relate to us much better when they can identify with us. I have found my students fascinated when I share experiences I had when growing up, or when I talk about my own teenage sons. They need some commonalities to build on as well. This underscores the value of a diverse teaching force. It is possible for students to build strong relationships with teachers from different backgrounds, but I think it is important that when students look at the faculty of a school, they see themselves represented. This makes it possible to bridge the tendency towards alienation.

I think we need to be conscious of the inclination to prefer those the same as ourselves, in our political decisions and in our classrooms. We should be judging candidates on their how well their policies will serve our country, and get beyond how similar to us they happen to be. In our classrooms, we can find ways to identify and empathize with all our students. It will take more work with some than others, but the best teaching occurs when we can make strong connections with all of our students, even -- perhaps especially -- those most “different” from us.

What do you think? Are voters influenced by factors that make them “different” from the candidates? As teachers, are we influenced by how “different” our students are from ourselves? How can we bridge these differences?

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