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Skin Deep

Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning
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I love going on field trips with my students.  There is something special about taking a group of students to a place that they have never been to see things that are completely new to them. You notice a true sense of wonder, engagement, and curiosity emerge when you take a child to explore a new part of our world.

I always make it a point to watch student expressions and actions because I like to fully engage with students during these experiences. I am also careful to keep an eye on the interactions that my students have with people they come into contact with. As an educator who places a high emphasis on social-emotional learning, this allows me to gauge where my students are and involve them in real-time teachable moments.

Last week I had the privilege to go on a field trip with my 8th grade students to Longwood Gardens (if you have never been, you need to get there!). Our students were participating in a guided tour and a lesson about recycling and renewable energy. My family frequents the gardens multiple times a year so I really hyped the trip up to my students and they were ready.

When we arrived at the gardens, my students were excited and very eager to enter. The looks on their faces displayed genuine interest and we could not get in soon enough for them. We met our tour guide and embarked on our journey.

As we walked through on our guided tour, we came across many different kind of people. We saw mothers with young children, grandparents with their grandkids, younger couples, senior citizens walking and exercising, and many other people enjoying the gorgeous weather and scenery. As we encountered these people, a lot of warm smiles and friendly looks were exchanged. This continued as the students in my group received a mini-lesson in the Conservatory. My students sat on mats and were perfect students for their instructor. When people walked by, they exchanged smiles with me and complimented my kids.

Once the lesson was over, our students were able to explore the landscape in their groups. This was exciting because I could show my students what I saw every time I go to the gardens. We embarked on a journey of our own, but I quickly discovered that the reactions from people would be completely different and unlike anything I could imagine.

My students are from Camden, NJ. The demographics of my school is 3/4 Hispanic and 1/4 black. They live in a concrete jungle and seldom find themselves immersed in the beauty of nature. Combine that with the fact that they are 13-14 year olds who spent the morning being quiet and respectful during their tour and class and you can imagine their excitement and energy level. This doesn't mean that they were out of control, but they were normal early teenagers eager to see what the gardens had to offer.

The first spot I took them was the "Birdhouse". This is a multi-story treehouse that invites guests to climb up to get a view of the forest. When my students saw this they were immediately excited. Check this out, who wouldn't be excited? I enjoy climbing to the top every time I visit the gardens.


It was here that I saw what will stick with me for the rest of my life. As we approached the structure, I looked over to see a middle-aged white woman and caught a glimpse of her reaction to our arrival. Plastered on her face was the biggest look of disgust, contempt, & disdain I have seen in 31 years of my life. I don't know the reason, but I watched her expression change when we appeared. She then leaned over to what I can assume was her husband and whispered something to him.

I don't remember what I specifically said in response, but I hope that what I did say impacted her significantly. I looked at her and said something along the lines, "They're kids. They are excited. They know how to behave. Don't worry, everything will be okay." Once I said it, I didn't give her the opportunity to respond. Maybe I should have, but I wasn't in that frame of mind. Instead, I turned around and climbed to the top of the Birdhouse with my kids to enjoy the sights.

I wish I could say that this was the last time that I saw looks and staring from people as we walked around. Instead, I saw more looks from many others as my students explored the gardens. I wish I could say that my kids were wild and that is why they were receiving these glares, but that just was not the case. So what could I attribute these reactions? My only answer is the color of their skin.

See, I was the principal of a special education school for students with behavioral and emotional issues for two years. We took our kids on countless trips. Never once have I received the kind of looks from people as I did on this trip. During my principal tenure, I have had kids cursing and melting down on trips and still did not have people look at us like last week. Comparing the two situations leads me to the conclusion that the color of my students' skin played a role. The ethnicities of my behavioral kids were diverse and the majority were actually white.

I am positive that my students did not notice the looks that they were receiving. Why would they? They're kids. They were too busy enjoying themselves in an environment that was unlike anything they had ever done. I am glad that they did not notice; however, I know that I will never forget the experience.

Maybe these people were not aware of the expressions on their faces, maybe they were, who knows. What I do know is that everyone has preconceived notions about people. We all look at someone for the first time and have an initial thought. Sometimes our thoughts go to dark places, which is what we experienced on our trip. Other times, we can choose to look a little deeper and see the good and positive in others. This is my invitation to try looking beyond the surface of the people you meet. We wield a lot of power in our interactions. There is not much difference between a negative and positive experience. Try putting yourself in the shoes of the person you are about to judge and see if your opinion remains the same. Stop focusing on the outside and focus more on what is inside of others.


I will never forget the look on that woman's face. I will never forget the reactions that people had to my kids being kids and enjoying life. I will remember the anger, disappointment, and irritation that filled me that day and continues to do so. I will remember why I work with the students that I do. I will remember my commitment to educating them, not just in science, but in social, emotional, and cultural issues. I will continue to bring things to the forefront of their conscience so that I can prepare them for success in a society that still struggles to see past the color of their skin.


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Sean is currently an 8th grade science teacher and science department head at Camden Promise Middle School, which is a part of the Camden Charter School Network. The goal of the network is to give all children in Camden an equal opportunity to achieve their greatest potential, to raise awareness through educational policy, to expand resources, to build leadership, and support program capacity for the city of Camden. Prior to this, Sean spent 2 years serving as the principal of a private, out-of-district school for students with behavioral and emotional issues. Sean began his educational career by teaching middle school science for 6 years throughout New Jersey (in Hoboken, Camden, and Millville). 


Sean completed his undergraduate work at Rutgers University, where he majored in Communication, with a minor focus in Organizational Leadership. He attended graduate school at the University of Scranton, where he earned his MS in Educational Administration. 


In addition to being an educator, Sean has received a patent for a student-centered teacher feedback system. This approach takes the focus solely off of student output and examines student input. The process allows students to provide instant feedback on any one of several key aspects of a lesson. He is currently developing a plan to get this system in the hands of students as soon as possible. If you would like to collaborate with him on this, please reach out! 


Sean and his family live in beautiful southern New Jersey. When he is not focused on his professional endeavors, Sean loves to spend time with his wife, their two sons, and their two dogs. He enjoys running, mountain biking, training for and running Spartan Races, riding his motorcycle, and doing whatever he can to stay active and involved.

  • Gillian Judson @perfinker
    Gillian Judson @perfinker Wednesday, 19 October 2016

    Thanks for sharing this Sean--it deeply saddens me. But, unfortunately, it doesn't surprise me. There is not enough love or kindness in this world.

  • Sean A. Thom  |  @SeanAThom
    Sean A. Thom | @SeanAThom Wednesday, 19 October 2016

    Thanks for reading Gillian! I feel the same way, which is why I am sharing this piece with my students this week. As educators, we must bring that love and kindness to our students and teach them how to share it with the world!

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