Inclusion: lessons learned by a teacher

Image: PedroMatos /

As Chair of the Board of Terre des Hommes International Federation, I could explain what rights we have to defend and promote to include children at school. I could also explain how the Sustainable Development Goals intend to leave no one behind by 2030. But I’d rather share with you my best experience as a teacher, 20 years ago.

It was the first day of the school year. When I arrived in the silent classroom, I met eighteen girls, aged 14 to 16. Before me was the living reminder of what exclusion meant in our school system. Girls with a slight intellectual handicap; girls with a severe physical disfigurement; girls with a low intellectual level. Their problems varied; they also had very different ability levels in reading and writing. However, they all had something in common: they came from vulnerable families.

When I got back home that evening, I cried. My training had not prepared me for teaching these girls. I was teaching English and French in a vocational school and was used to difficult pupils. Those girls were not difficult; they were obedient, polite and listened to their teacher with respect. I had to do something!

And I did! I read them stories and poems. They loved it – not because they did not have to do it, but because “nobody ever read us stories”. They wrote poems. They did not grasp rhymes and verses, but they produced heartfelt pieces. I remember one of them about one-sided love, where, in the end, the girl pitied the boy who could not understand how much love she had to share.

They were bullied, they were abused, and I was there to answer their anxious questions about love and life. Each morning it took them ten minutes to settle before we could start any work, but that was simply the time they needed to adjust to their school day.

I still remember them, though I have forgotten most of the other classes I had. I received so much from them. I learned compassion, empathy and tolerance. The day I tripped over my raincoat and fell on my knees behind the desk, instead of laughing, which I would have done, they waited in awe, and when I got up asked me, “Did you hurt yourself, Madam?”

I had to visit them in the retirement home where they went for their vocational training. I just hated these visits, but when I arrived, they not only greeted me with smiles, but also expressed their pleasure at being there. That made me think twice.

They did not understand second-degree meaning, because they had no sense of humour and therefore took everything at face value. They were victims of a life they did not totally comprehend, and I tried to help them decipher it. One day I spoke about “a good-for-nothing person”. They were revolted. For them, nobody could be good for nothing. Another lesson I will not forget!

I have never felt more useful in my teaching years. I hope I helped them to feel better included in a world that is so unfair to the vulnerable. At the end of the year, I asked to have the same class again.

Lysiane André is a retired teacher, having taught English and French in a vocational school for about 35 years. After a few years of volunteer work in the local branch of Terre des Hommes, she was elected into its Board. Following that, she became president of Terre des Hommes France from 2005 to 2008, and again in 2016; she was also elected Chair of Terre des Hommes International Federation in 2015. She still occupies both positions. Additionally, she was decorated Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2017. She is married, and has two daughters and four grandchildren.

Terre des Hommes is a non-governmental children’s rights organisation, created in 1966. Ten national organisations are members of the federation, which develops humanitarian, development and advocacy programmes in 69 countries.