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Avatar the Last Airbender Made Me a Better Teacher

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Avatar the Last Airbender is probably my favorite show for kids. It’s hard to pick because a few others do deserve honorable mention, but Avatar will hold a special place in my heart. It’s the only show that I think can make us better teachers. I would call one particular episode of Avatar the Last Airbender a vital watch for all special education teachers who want to learn about how to have an open mind. 

Sarah, have you lost your mind? It’s a cartoon. How can Avatar the Last Airbender make us better teachers? 

No, I have not lost my mind. I can still hear it whirring away up there, working too hard. 

Last week one of my students had requested watching an episode of Avatar, something I let them do if they aren’t feeling well, want to work on summarizing, or as a reward. 

Now we’re watching the episode, and it’s actually all about learning because everyone is off trying to master new skills in both plots of the episode. 

Full disclosure I wasn’t listening too closely because I’ve seen it a million times and this is supposed to be a chill activity. Then I hear Uncle Iroh spout some wisdom, and I really heard it for the first time. 

My mind was totally blown, and even though it’s a principle I already agreed with I want to talk about it! 

So in this post, we’re going to talk about my favorite cartoon and how it can make Special Education Teachers and SEITs better at their jobs. 

If you are a special education teacher or a one-on-one service provider make sure to join my email list! You get access to my free resource library, which includes a checklist of reading skills! It can help you observe your students as they read, and note what they do well and what they don’t! That way you can choose to target specific areas! 

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First of all, if you aren’t skipping over this section, I’m so sorry for you, because your life is less full for not having seen it. 

Avatar the Last Airbender was an animated series. It ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. After it was released on Netflix during the early days of the pandemic, it went through a bit of a renaissance. 

People still love it and talk about it today, not just because of the nostalgia factor but because it’s an incredibly written story. In my opinion, it has one of the best redemption arcs for a character I’ve ever seen. 

The gist of the plot is that there are four nations, Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. Within each nation, there are people called benders who can control the element of their nation. 

There is one person, called the Avatar, who is born and reborn into each nation and lives many lifetimes. They can control all four elements and are in charge of maintaining the balance in the world. 

However, 100 years before the beginning of the story the Avatar disappeared and the Fire Nation attacked. When the Avatar, Aang, turns up again he has to find a way to learn to bend all the elements and fight the fire nation to restore peace. 

It’s also the source of many great gifs and memes.

There is one particular character who I didn’t get as a child, but who is now my favorite. Uncle Iroh of the Fire Nation is the spiritual guide to his nephew Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation.

He’s also the only adult in the whole series who’s a good parent, or in this case parental figure. 

***Spoilers Ahead***

In Book 2 Episode 9, Bitter Work, Iroh is trying to teach Zuko about bending lightning, and Zuko is having a hard time with it. He’s criticizing himself in that emo way that makes anyone attracted to emos swoon. Then Iroh offers to teach him a new technique for redirecting lightning. 

Around the 13-minute mark, the lesson begins with a lecture on the four nations and their personalities. 

Water is adaptable. Air is free. Blah blah blah blah. 

But then Iroh says something that struck me to my core. 

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” Uncle Iroh

One could argue this is great advice for life. One would be right, but I think it applies particularly to special ed teachers and SEITs

What Uncle means here is that when you’re a firebender only drawing wisdom from other firebenders limits you. In this story, Uncle studied the waterbenders and through that created a new technique for firebending. 

He drew from many sources of wisdom to create something that worked for him. 

Special education teachers need to do the same thing.

I’ve talked about how much I dislike ABA, but I think what I really dislike about it, isn’t the technique so much. It’s the idea that this is what works and it’s the only way that comes along with it.

Like Uncle said, if you only look at one source for knowledge, it becomes rigid and stale. Drawing from multiple techniques, like floor time, Son-Rise, video modeling, and more can help you create a more customized and effective method for your students. 

Special education is not one size fits all, and the therapies that work for some won’t work for others. Each student needs their own customized combination of different techniques.

So to be a good teacher, try to embrace your inner Uncle Iroh and draw wisdom from wherever you can find it, and apply it in a way that makes sense!

It’s amazing how wise children’s television programs can be sometimes. That is why I still love them and watch them, even as an adult today!  

If you haven’t seen Avatar, I highly recommend sitting down with your kids and watching the whole thing! Very worth it! 

And if you’re already an Avatar the Last Airbender fan, find me on Instagram and tell me your favorite Uncle Iroh piece of wisdom! 

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