06/23/2015 07:55 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT

How This Teacher Made a Difference

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This is the week when we are supposed to say thanks and farewell to our teachers. They and our children now get a well-deserved break from each other. With any luck, we will have a chance to reflect on teaching and learning, before it all starts again in the fall. Some of us also want to say thanks to a special teacher or two -- because teachers can make a big difference in our lives.

Let me tell you about a teacher I think of as a role model to her students and to other teachers. I have met quite a few high school social studies teachers in my years as a civil liberties educator. Many are deeply thoughtful people who want to see their students learn about the role of rights and responsibilities in their communities and their lives. But few live civic engagement quite like law and civics teacher Laura Kirby-McIntosh.

A few years ago, some students in Laura's school wanted to invite a trans-identified speaker to address a school assembly. The students felt that while the school community was fairly tolerant of gay people, they still had a lot to learn about transsexuality. But, the school administration said no. They determined that the school was not ready to listen to a speaker from the trans community.

What did the students do next? They protested this decision by holding "Dress the Other Way Day." They wanted to show they were ready and willing to talk about trans issues. Some of the school's popular male athletes arrived wearing dresses. And I understand that Laura found her husband's clothes quite comfortable. Did they get their speaker? For a number of other reasons, it did not work out for that academic year. But the next year? The students registered their request for the speaker in September -- just so the school would have plenty of time to get everyone "ready."

In the process, what did those students learn? They learned about the power of lawful protest, the uses of creative expression and the importance of standing up for the rights of others. They also learned that when you put all of these things together it not only can work -- it can be inspiring.

In 2014, Wali Shah was named one of Canada's Top 20 Under 20. He came through a lot to get there. As the University of Toronto Mississauga News reported, "He credits his turnaround from hooligan to hero to Laura Kirby-McIntosh, a social studies teacher .... Just after Shah's arrest, Kirby-McIntosh began to mentor the student, helping him to channel his energy into more positive directions, including music." Laura did not write Shah off because he had been arrested, she chose to engage him in learning instead.

As well as being a teacher, Laura is also the mother of two children with autism. To put it mildly, this can make life complex.

A while ago, her then 13-year-old son had a "meltdown" in a mall. He is not a small child any longer, so Laura was unable to keep him safe on her own. She asked the bystanders to call mall security to help her to restrain him. Fortunately for Laura and her son, Ana Melissa Abreu was on duty and knew just what to do. She helped to calm the child, and the situation as a whole. But the story does not end there. Laura did not merely thank Ms. Abreu. She wrote an article in the Toronto Star nominated her for a community hero award which was presented to Ana in May.

Laura also learned that Ana is hoping to join the police as a crisis intervention officer one day. If anyone can help Ana to achieve her goal, it will be Laura. That's because Laura Kirby-McIntosh isn't just a school teacher, she is a role model for civic engagement.

Thank you, Laura -- and thanks to all the wonderful teachers who are helping to teach all of us what an engaged citizenry looks like.


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