That’s the question that Laura Cathcart Robbins asks on every episode of her appropriately named podcast, “The Only One in the Room.” Her discussions offer a glimpse into life through the eyes of a fascinating, diverse collection of people.

It’s a critical skill for teachers — that willingness to step back and consider the perspective of another human being. Sure, rules and routines and procedures and content knowledge matter — but it’s our ability to empathize that will largely determine our success this year.

That’s because every one of your students, when they walk through your doorway, will feel in some fashion like the only one in the room. For some, it might be obvious — the only one who lost a parent over the summer. The only one with a certain disability. The only one who can’t read. 

For others, it might be more subtle; they might not be constantly aware of their otherness. But there will be times where they feel alone — where they feel like the only one who can understand the world through their eyes.

That understanding is at the heart of what it means to build a sense of classroom community. We need to cross the gap and understand the world of our students — and we need to encourage them to do the same with their classmates. 

If you clicked on the classroom community link, you’ve seen four clever ways to facilitate that sense in your students. Here’s a fifth — and it’s a bold one: instead of asking your students to share their favorite colors and classes at the start of the school year, dig a little deeper: ask them when they’ve felt like the only one in the room. Share some examples first and make sure to keep their answers private, but use that simple question as a way to know students, and to help them move from the feeling of being alone to the knowledge that they are known and loved.

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