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Dedicated to Teachers

What Is an Upstander?


Sara K. Ahmed is the co-author of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She teaches middle school literacy and social studies using the inquiry model.

What is an "upstander"?

by Sara K. Ahmed

When you see an altercation unfold on the street, what choice do you make? Do you keep walking? Do you stop and gawk? Do you whip out your phone and start taking video? Or do you call for help or take a risk and lend a hand? Then perhaps you’re the upstander.

If you were to ask my students (the experts) what an upstander is, they would define it as follows:

  • Someone who does something about a problem, such as bullying
  • Someone who takes action
  • An upstander is, like, the hero
  • Someone who chooses to stand up

Upstanders have been around since the beginning of time. They can be disguised as guardian angels, heroes, good Samaritans or role models. They can be found in every corner of the Earth, including in our classrooms and on our playgrounds.

So, how do we spot them? The upstanders in our schools are the ones that ask the outliers on the sidelines to join in the game. They make space at the lunch table for someone sitting by himself or herself. They turn and make sure everyone is included in a partnership or group. They reach out to make human connections. They smile at others in the hallways and say hello to the people that need it the most.

And that’s just the beginning.

Upstanders ask questions when they seek to understand the world around them. They always want to know the why? and the how come? Upstanders will ask questions of friends, family, authors, leaders, and strangers.

Upstanders choose to act, even when it is not convenient, easy, or even safe. Events such as the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy helped us to see the power of upstanders in the world beyond school. We heard stories of volunteers handing food and water out to first responders. Stories of men and women shuttling victims to safety, and then going back for others. Stories of friends and neighbors lending a hand or a shoulder to strangers at a time when there was nowhere else to turn.

The most amazing thing about upstanders is that anyone can choose to become one. We have an entire generation of upstanders and potential upstanders in our schools just waiting to lead by example. It is time to start watching them, letting them ask questions, honoring their commitment to other human beings, and celebrating their desire for equity. It is time to consider how our work with kids each day can grow upstanders.

Sara K. Ahmed has written Upstanders with co-author Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Click here for more information on Upstanders and to read a sample chapter.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sara K. Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Harvey "Smokey" Daniels has been a city and suburban classroom teacher and college professor, and now works as a national consultant and author on literacy education. 

Topics: Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, Middle School, Sara Ahmed, Upstanders, Sara K. Ahmed

Date Published: 10/08/14

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