It looks almost certain now that Joe Biden will become the next president of the USA. But regardless of his politics, it’s his personal story that makes him interesting to me as an educator.
Joe Biden is a person who stutters (see clip below). Stuttering is a hidden disability that affects roughly 1 per cent of the world’s population. For many people who stutter, the world can be an intimidating and isolating place. Often, they feel like no one knows what they are going through and that they can’t achieve what they want in life because of their stammering. I know about this, as I am a person who stammers.
To see someone who stammers take on the biggest job in the world – well, it’s inspirational. It made me think about why it is important to have all sort of role models in our teaching workforce.
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First of all, it is important for the pupils in our care to see that teachers are people, too. They need to see our human side and perhaps our vulnerabilities. If a pupil can see an adult who is different being a positive role model, then they might just feel more confident in speaking about their own needs or issues.
It’s also important from a bullying perspective: if a pupil new to my class ever mimics or tries to take the mickey out of my stammer, then I shut it down in a professional and emotive way. I draw on my feelings and how I can’t change something that is part of me. I’ve never had a repeat "piss-take" after doing that. It also sets that ethos of respect between all of us.
What about colleagues at school? I’ve had numerous colleagues over the years approach me after I’ve spoken about stuttering and tell me about a disability, medical issue or quirk of their own, and they’ve asked for my advice on how to speak to the pupils about this. I always tell them that the more people who normalise things that make them who they are then the easier it is for new staff coming in. My message is simple: just talk about it. Being an effective role model doesn’t necessarily mean showy speeches in front of big audiences – you can be quietly going about your business, discussing it with pupils in small groups. That could make all the difference to a child.
And the parents? Over the years many have spoken to me about how inspiring it is to see that I am a teacher with a stutter, how it gives them hope that their child can overcome whatever it is they are facing and, one day, hold down a professional job, too.
I never had this growing up – I never saw a teacher work through something like stammering and still be an effective communicator. If more and more teachers show students that they are different and it’s OK, that can only be a good thing. Parents don’t want their children's teachers to be robots, they want to see that we can get their children hooked on learning – and if that means sharing a little of our personal stories and challenges, so be it.
So, as a resident of Scotland, Joe Biden's politics won’t affect me directly – but his win it will absolutely affect me for the better as an educator. If he can stand up the biggest political stage in the world talking about his disability, then any of us teachers with differences can do it in our classes. The more people prepared to talk, the better it will be for future generations.
My final message is always to embrace your quirks: they make you who you are. Nobody told me that as a child, and I really wish they had.
Adam Black is a teacher in Scotland and, in the 2019 New Year's Honours list, received the British Empire Medal for services to raising awareness of stammering. He tweets @adam_black23