Citing divisiveness and a lack of acceptance of diversity across the country, School Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Feser challenged about 600 teachers who gathered at Foran High School Friday to work even harder this year to make each Milford student feel accepted and welcome in the classroom.

Students head back to school Monday, but teachers returned this week, and Friday was their opening day convocation.

Dr. Feser told the teachers and others who packed the Foran High auditorium stories about students who have felt like outsiders in school and reminded teachers that they play a vital role in not only students’ academic growth but also their social and emotional growth.

She told them how she met not long ago with parents of children with disabilities, and noted that for those students and parents, “their struggle is immense.”

She told them about an email from a parent of a child who follows the Sikh religion: The parent asked if the school could keep her child safe.

She told them about a request from the parent of a girl who is a lesbian, asking for a guarantee that the student would not be teased.

She told them about last year’s controversy that erupted when elementary school teachers tried to replace the annual Halloween parade with a school gathering for children of all faiths. “Much of the pushback said we were un-American,” Dr. Feser said, adding that on the day of the parades, which were ultimately reinstated, some Muslim families kept their children home from school because they feared retribution.

With demonstrations of bias, hate and bullying around the country, Dr. Feser said she worries about today’s students.

“I am so concerned about our students and what they are seeing,” she said.

“We can’t ignore what’s happening in the country,” Dr. Feser added.

She said she is worried, but she is hopeful too, because of the teachers in Milford.

“You are so needed,” Dr. Feser said, asking them to take their caring and nurturing to a new level this year. “I’m calling on you to make a difference, but more,” she said.

Foran High School student Julia Astram believes teachers make a difference. She also spoke at Friday’s convocation. National Honor Society vice president, this year’s Barnum Festival Queen and much more, Julia said every teacher she has had since kindergarten has been “phenomenal.”

“These teachers have taught me to be a thoughtful and hardworking person,” Julia said. “You are making a difference in all of our lives.”

David Fischman, Milford’s 2016 teacher of the year, spoke as well, delivering an amusing speech that evoked plenty of laughs from the audience.

But then he got serious.

Fischman told his fellow teachers and others in the audience that he has a brother who was born with multiple birth defects: His brother suffered years of taunting and bullying, and Fischman said he saw adults turn a blind eye to the abuse. When he was younger and a student himself, Fischman battled the bullies, and even got himself expelled from school a few times for fighting.

“It became personal,” Fischman said.

But then his father talked to him and told him that it takes more strength to walk away.

As time went on, with his father’s advice and his own desire to protect his brother and others like him, Fischman decided to be a teacher, so he could help people like his brother.

“I embarked upon my personal crusade to help and empower every child,” Fischman said.

A teacher for 30 years, he said he often talks to students about bullying, and works to make every child feel special and accepted.

“Remember to realize the value of your presence in a child’s life,” he said. “Be that agent of positive change.”