Lord knows we need more of it. No need to recount here what we’re experiencing today as a global community. As educators, we know that we cannot just read the headlines and go off to our jobs and try to forget them, part of our jobs is dealing with those troubles on a very intimate level. I admit that I am very, very lucky that in my school I do not deal with all of the serious issues affecting young people today. But so many teachers do. Poverty, hunger, violence, homelessness, are not just news snippets, for many teachers across the country they are everyday realities. Consequently, we must address those issues head-on.
One of the best things we as teachers can do to is to model kindness. We’ve all seen the many quotes – or have heard it directly from students and parents – of the impact teachers can have on young people. The most powerful weapon teachers have to impact their students is their actions. So many teachers I know, colleagues and ones I’ve had myself throughout the years, possess kindness naturally. After all, they enter the profession because they care. But it is always a good idea to try to bring to light the things we do somewhat subconsciously. It is also good to think about how we make our classrooms places of kindness, safety, and positivity.
The Power of Language: Think about the most prominent buzzwords we hear nowadays: “toxic,” “cancerous,” “shaming.” Or personal descriptive words that are given a demeanor of negativity, such as calling someone’s actions “autistic.” The casual language we use to communicate with our students can have very positive and negative connotations. And students hear (even if they seem not to be listening). As an auditory learner, I always focused on exactly what teachers were saying, so every word has an effect.
We choose, as a society, what popular language is propelled into our lexicon. It is impacted by countless inputs like media, entertainment, etc. Language is also affected by the ever-growing casualness of our culture. In this milieu, teachers need to vigilant about using positive language. Swearing, for example, though often prevalent and second nature in every medium, is definitely out. I know, young people hear it all the time and everywhere. Regardless, it sets a tone that does not promote respect. Even “milder” words (“sucks” is a favorite of my students) I find negatively-charged. I’m not a prude nor naive, I just try to be more positive in my language and save the swearing for Sunday NFL games.
Methodology: Building community and cooperation among students is also a way to model kindness. Group work and cooperative learning are great ways for students to become closer as colleagues as well as human beings. A starting point for group work is to choose them with the intention of creating diversity in all its forms: race, gender, skills, and personality. Let those groups work together for a while, such as a quarter or an entire semester. A longer period of time working on many different projects will help build that cooperative spirit. Students will get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and, consequently, how to best support one another. Be sure in the assessment that the group work is sufficiently noted, which will also help students realize that there are rewards for working together effectively. Cooperation builds concern for how others in the group are doing.
Incorporate Kindness as a Lesson Theme: The possibilities here are endless, especially for humanities teachers. Regardless of the material, incorporating kindness is sometimes a matter of choice for us. We, teachers, have a great deal of power in choosing the forms our lessons take and what topics we decide to emphasize. I teach history, so there are a lot of tough topics we cover: slavery, wars, violence, exploitation, etc. Those are topics I feel we need to talk about in depth. But when there is an opportunity, I try to include the positive actions of historic figures and groups. Howard Zinn once argued that although history gives us plenty of examples of humans’ ability to commit violence, it also provides just as many examples of their potential for acts of kindness. American history is full of such instances: early Quaker opposition to slavery, prison and asylum reformers of the 1800s, conductors of the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements; all driven by people who chose peace, equality, and justice toward others. History teachers have to cover the some of those tough topics of war and violence, but there is also room to study those who were instruments of respect and humanity.
Character Education: Most schools emphasize this in some manner: Honor Codes or emotional intelligence programs. Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports is a great student-centered approach to build and enhance positive student interactions. As the PBIS web site states, the program is not a structured curriculum, but a guide that gives school communities strategies to enhance positive behavior as best fits its community. Creating an atmosphere of respect, cooperation, awareness, and kindness between students is a central goal of the program. Ann Doringo, a special education intervention specialist whose school uses the PBIS methods, explains its positive affect on students. At her school, every morning begins with a meeting with activities designed to allow students to know one another better. It extends throughout the school day as teachers run “responsive classroom,” promoting student bonds and trying to create an atmosphere of kindness and respect. If your school has a character building program, live it. Post it in your room, make students write it on assessments, and make it part of every day.
Build Nurturing Relationships: Think about the teachers you remember the most, especially in elementary school. The first memories you likely have are the teachers who treated their students like human beings; with kindness. I have had teachers who were amazing people who exuded kindness and patience and they have had a profound impact on me. Moreover, I remember a great deal of the content from those teachers because of how they taught it and really fostered those lessons with kindness. Unfortunately, I have also had some teachers who were, well, pretty mean. And those one or two have left an equally powerful impression. I remember nothing that they taught, but have very clear memories of how they treated children. How we interact with kids is the most important part of our jobs. If we shower with kindness, young people will take that with them forever. Here’s one of those quotes I mentioned in the beginning, one of my favorites, by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
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