If you had asked me three years ago about kindness in my classroom, I would have responded like many teachers.
“Of course there’s kindness in my room! I expect all of my students to treat each other—and myself—with respect.”
That’s the kind of thing we say on the first day of school, put on our syllabi, or mention in conversations with parents. But I didn’t realize how much impact kindness truly can have on the culture of classrooms, schools, communities, and districts until my students and I truly challenged one another to grow.
A Simple Gesture
There are dozens of different scenarios that play out in my high school classroom. I often see students with their heads down, texting, not turning in their homework, or talking back. This behavior is usually followed by weeks of frustrating conversations with students, begging them to pay attention and get back to work, and then the ever-dreaded phone calls to parents.
One day I found myself having a particularly frustrating day—my hands covering my face as I stared down at my disheveled desk. But suddenly a pack of bright pink sticky notes caught my eye, and I thought back to one of my favorite college classes.
I’d been having a terrible day, and I was completely disengaged. I had no idea what the professor was discussing that day. Suddenly, a classmate slid a piece of paper across the table that said, “Are you OK?”
I’d never talked to this classmate before, and I didn’t know how to respond. But I wrote as much as I could on the note—“No”—and passed it back. Though the note didn’t solve my problem, I immediately felt better knowing that someone had cared enough to ask how I was doing.
It also gave me the answer I needed for the blank sticky notes I was now staring at on my desk.
As I looked around my classroom, one student caught my eye. He had his head down and showed very little interest in what was happening. So I grabbed a sticky note and wrote the same question, “Are you OK?” on it.
I walked over to the student and placed the note lightly on his desk, patting him on the shoulder and walked away without saying a word. I returned to my desk, made eye contact, and watched as the student wrote back. He walked back to my desk, handed the note to me, and I saw the familiar response: “No.”
I looked around to make sure no one else was listening to our private moment and said, “Whatever is going on, you know that I am always here to listen. I know it’s hard to think right now, but try to use your work as an escape from whatever is going on. If it’s too tough, you come back and tell me.” He nodded and returned to his desk, sat down, and finished his work.
Since that moment, I’ve always made sure my desk is well equipped with sticky notes.
It’s easy for teachers to become wrapped up in making sure the lesson is done, rather than making sure every student understands the lesson. In this scenario, I could have called home or sent him somewhere else. But that simple gesture let the student know I cared about how he felt. I found out in a later conversation that that was all he needed—his parents were in the middle of a divorce at home and attention was lacking.
It was a nice reminder that kindness is more than respect or the golden rule. It’s mutual understanding between two people.
I didn’t realize the true impact kindness could have until there was a threat of violence at my school. The police were involved and the situation was resolved before we returned to school after Thanksgiving break.
Although the exact motivation behind that particular threat wasn’t apparent, investigations following the incidents revealed students who have felt excluded, alone, or bullied. The day we returned to class, I approached my leadership class and expressed my concerns about bullying at our school. I asked my students, “How can we create lasting, ongoing change?” To my surprise, they came up with an entire program—based solely on kindness. They even came up a name that encouraged people to take an active role: To Be Kind (TBK).
The students made it a priority to proactively improve the quality of life for students and staff at our school by creating a culture of kindness. They were creative (and ambitious) in their ideas: They stuffed all 2,000 lockers with messages of positivity and challenges like holding the door for strangers; they placed anonymous notes on teachers’ desks thanking them for working hard to help them be successful; they used social media to compliment their classmates instead of using it to talk badly about them; they brought attention to words like “gay” and “retarded” and their negative connotations; and most impactful of all, they used sidewalk chalk all over campus to leave inspiring quotes (many of which were posted to students’ Instagram accounts).
As a result of students’ efforts, the dynamic and culture of the campus changed. Students were more excited to come to school. (Yes, you read that right—students wanted to come to school!)
This change in our school culture spread quickly via social media and word of mouth. Next thing we knew, the culture of kindness had spread to other schools in the district and the larger community. A local news station and a professional soccer team even came on board to help create public service announcements to impact our community. Most importantly, my students spent time at elementary schools teaching younger children the importance of kindness.
It was amazing to see ideas as simple as passing along a smile to a stranger, saying please and thank you, giving a compliment, or even writing a sticky note, grow to impact so many people.
Bringing Kindness Into the Classroom
Teachers must learn to lead by example. What we expect of our students, we must expect of ourselves. Education is a joint effort between students and educators—and kindness is no different.
It seems that every year the inevitable question pops up: “How do you change the world?” For many of my students, the answer is always the same: “One person can’t change the world.” Of course I could offer examples like Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and countless others from history—or I could lead them to the truth.
So I ask: “How many people did you smile at today? How many compliments did you give? How many apologies did you make?” In each of those moments, we have a chance to change the world by making the day just a little better for someone else. For today, we can change their world. Creating a culture of kindness begins with everyday teachable moments that help students change their perceptions of one another.
Teachers change the world every day for students; in the lessons you teach, in the moments you speak, in the actions you take. Too many people say bullying is a rite of passage—that it’s just kids being kids, or that it’s a way to toughen kids up.
As educators, we need to be the voice of change. We need to show (not tell) students the meaning of compassion, empathy, understanding, and respect. We need to rethink about yelling at that student “we wished had stayed home.” Maybe they just needed someone to pass them a sticky note and open the door of trust.
Many educators see kindness as a way to let their students walk all over them. “I have to be tough so they won’t misbehave.” The truth is, kindness is one of the strongest characteristics a person can show because being mean is simply too easy.
Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me. What will you teach today?