Of Humble Turnips and Inclusive Classrooms

Recently I heard from a friend who went to a relative’s one hundredth birthday celebration. The dear lady claimed that she achieved the century mark by eating lots of turnips and carrots, which she had stolen from her mom’s garden, first wiping off the dirt. Upon reflection, I realized that though I grow lots of carrots, I have been avoiding turnips. The humble turnip is the underdog of root vegetables, and probably the oldest (with origins around 2000 BC, according to some sources). Once a staple of the vegetable garden, it was soon elbowed out by the potato. Though it may bring a long life, the turnip remains underestimated and little appreciated.

This forgotten vegetable reminds me of children who are neglected or left on the margins. It is important to ask: Is our classroom inclusive of all the children? Are we accepting of the ones who act out in “strange” behavior patterns, the ones who never smile, the ones who sit in the corner and shut out their world? One grade 5 boy in our school loved to play dress-up, and from kindergarten on had always preferred to wear long gowns and carry elegant purses. Eventually, other students began to notice and laugh at him behind his back, but he continued. Were we as staff accepting of this, or did we try to discourage the behavior? I remember that we didn’t really know what to do with the situation. We had never really had to deal with this at our school in the past, and needed to open up the dialogue and learn how to reach out.

Another young student was a refugee from Egypt. She never talked about her experiences and seemed to connect with some of her classmates, but there was something unreachable about her. When the grade 8 class went to the war museum in Ottawa, she became unglued. She had memories of war that were sealed and locked away, but this was too much. We were not aware of how deep the hurt inside of her was, and were not equipped to support her.

The richness of diversity in our schools is a blessing! Are we ready for this blessing? We can learn from each other, from our students, and from our families with diverse cultural backgrounds. As teachers we must be open to each new challenge and be supportive in each situation. A child with two mothers is just as much part of the kingdom of God, and needs to be embraced as such. Our response to such challenges can be practical: If you receive a family of Syrian refugees in your school, prepare by learning more about the plight of the refugees, and have supports in place for the children. Find out all you can about blended families, and understand how to support the child who is moved from one parent to the next on a regular basis, consequently always forgetting her homework. Seek out professional workshops that will help you understand the needs in your classroom and offer tools for fostering inclusivity.

Inclusivity begins with us. When I hear someone make a quick judgment call about homosexuality, my response is,”Never judge until you walk in someone else’s shoes.” As teachers we are called to “walk in the shoes” of our children, and this can mean that many lunch hours are spent trying to understand a silent child, or changing our unit study topic to include current events in order to help your class understand the cultural background of new students. We are too often quick to have opinions and slow to adapt to changes.

My exclusive approach to turnips left me missing out on a wonderful vegetable, rich in vitamin C, low in calories, high in nutrients, full of antioxidants, and very flavorful. Left in the ground too long, they become mealy, and if you boil them to death, they taste very “turnipy” (maybe that’s why I didn’t like them—I had no idea how delicious they could be in the right context). But knowledge is power; now that I know they lead to longevity, I’ll be planting a serious turnip patch next year! In this vein, let us always be open to learning and growing and being accepting of others, both in the classroom and in our daily lives—just as Jesus was accepting of all the lonely and downtrodden, the turnips and the carrots alike.


Jane Hoogendam-Reitsma worked for many years at Knox Christian School in Bowmanville, Ontario, in special education and as vice principal, and is now working independently as an educational therapist.