Teach Kindness

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I’m continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be “thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind” — and I do — so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part four. Thoughtfulness, Teach Wisdom and Teach Passion were the first three parts.]

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater

High school is not structured to teach kindness.

There is almost nothing about the traditional high school structure that would encourage kids to believe that the adults value kindness. Think about it. The factory model of education that persists in most American high schools are designed to limit meaningful human interaction, not create it.

  • 40-50 minute classes
  • Students seeing up to seven or eight teachers a day
  • Students having different students in every class
  • 100 point grading scales and class ranks that encourage students to compete against one another
  • No longitudinal relationships between students and teachers, so there are few opportunities aside from extra-curriculars for teachers and students to know one another over time.
  • Little to no time for meaningful collaboration among the adults

So much of the current overarching structure of high school is fundamentally individualistic, isolating and solipsistic. What’s incredible is that most teachers went into the profession because on some fundamental level, they care about kids. And without a doubt, individual teachers in schools all over the world inspire students with their acts of kindness despite being in a system that discourages rather than encourages kindness as an institutional value.

That has to change.

We have to recognize that teaching kindness is more than just modeling “being nice to kids,” we have understand that kindness is the essentially the act of extending one’s self in the care of another. Aristotle defined it as “helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.” (http://rhetoric.eserver.org/aristotle/rhet2-7.html) And kindness is central as a profoundly important action — virtue, even — most of the major religious and philosophical movements from Judeo-Christian to Islam to Buddhism to humanism. It is, therefore, a moral imperative to create the environments in our high schools where kindness is more easily and powerfully modeled and taught.

So then what are structures that more powerfully lend themselves to learning environments that are more kind? How do we make it easier for students to be kind to one another and easier for teachers to model kindness by being able to be kind to their students?

  1. Create spaces for students and teachers to know each other over time. For SLA, that’s Advisory. When students and teachers have a community where people can know each other not just as students and teachers of a subject, but as people, that is a powerful opportunity for kindness. In addition, when students are encouraged to see teachers as their advocates, it gives teachers the opportunity to model kindness.
  2. Create more opportunities for students to feel part of a community in their classes. Schools  teach “Humanities” classes so that students spend more time with the same group of student, schools integrate science and math, schools loop students and teachers for more than a year so that the community of learners can stay together.
  3. Simplify the grading systems and do away with individualized class rank. Educators like Joe Bower (http://www.joebower.org/) advocate doing away with grading entirely, but there are less extreme steps schools can take. Schools can move to a 4.0 GPA without plusses and minuses so that students are less competitive about their grades. Schools can report broad categories of class rank to colleges (Top 10%, top 25%, top 50% – this is what we do at SLA.) All these are ways to dial down the competitiveness of high school and allow students to become more invested in the success of all members of their community.
  4. Have students identify and solve real problems. Many educators are using the framework of Design Thinking (http://www.designthinkingforeducators.com/) to help students develop empathy as they learn how to listen to identify problems and seek solutions.
  5. Create channels for positive interactions between home and school. Schedule fifteen minutes once a month in a faculty meeting for teachers to write positive emails to students and parents about great things they have seen in the classroom so that students and parents can see that school-home communication is more than informational and punitive.
  6. Have shared spaces. Put tables in hallways, make the Main Office community space, don’t put the principal’s office in the back of the office. Eat lunch together. And then, when you are together, laugh. Laugh a lot.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start. The adults who spend their lives in schools are overwhelming kind people. And students are capable of profound acts of kindness. The structure of school must do more to enable and enhance and support that.

What changes to the structure of school would you make to enable us to model kindness for children?

7 thoughts on “Teach Kindness

  1. Teach kindness. Since the advent of NCLB (even before), we stopped explicitly teaching the connection between civil behavior and success in life. What real meaning does the citizenship grade we assign students have? It’s not factored into any grade or promotion decisions. Really it just indicates how obedient a student was in the classroom.

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  3. I certainly agree with your points.

    As you imply, it’s about making it a fundamental core value of the school. And all community members need regular opportunities to discuss it, celebrate it, even argue about it.

    We are concerned about narrowing the curriculum, but what we need to do is narrow the focus for our school cultures.

    At the elementary level, we adopted six core values before opening our school in 2005. We organize everything we do around those values, and have maintained the same six values since then. I’ve been in too many schools where so many great and timeless words (like “leadership” and “joy”) are thrown around that they essentially become meaningless because there is no time and space for them to marinate.

    Of those six core values, kindness is one.

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  7. Friends-
    Kindness is a luxury reserved for our “kin.” Until we create communities that make clear the fact that all proximal human relationships are kindred, we will be unable to cultivate true kindness in our children. When we fully integrate adult efforts through deep workplace collaboration to where we cannot succeed without the success of those around us, we are drawn together in kindred relationships.
    As long as we can close our classroom doors and recede into the direct relationships with our students, we will not feel the pull of integral relationships; we will not feel kindred. We must re-envision the nature of the adult working relationships in our schools to unleash the torrents of kindness.
    And like all things, it will flow downhill, from the adults to the children.