Aug 22

They Don’t Have to Learn It From Us

There’s a new post making the rounds on Facebook. It’s about a sign that the Catholic High School for Boys has posted on their front door for this school year. It says:

If you are dropping off your son’s forgotten lunch, books, homework, equipment, etc, TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.

Many teachers I know are sharing it gleefully. And that worries me for a bunch of reasons. First, it shows a lack of empathy on our part – as if “tough love” would override helping a student who has forgotten homework or lunch or their cleats. Wouldn’t we want the kids to have what they need for school? And if that means that, from time to time, they need someone to bail them out when they forget something, so be it. And yes, I recognize that many students don’t have the ability to have parents drop something off at school, and so we shouldn’t only have that as a student’s solution, but nor should we turn parents away at the door when they are coming to school to help their child.

Second, I wonder if teachers would subject themselves to this same policy. I’d be in trouble. SLA Ultimate practices at 6:30 am every morning, and I dress in practice gear and change into my work clothes after practice. I’ve forgotten my wallet, socks, a belt, dress shoes, you name it. I’m lucky – my wife goes by SLA on her way to work, and if I realize it in time, I’m able to call her and beg her to drop off what I’ve forgotten. Does that make me a less responsible and effective educator that I occasionally forget stuff when I leave at 6:15 am? I hope not. Nor would I want a teacher not to have someone offer them the same help if they forgot a folder of work to hand back on the kitchen table. And I’m curious how some of the teachers who have been sharing this post on Facebook would react if their principal told their roommate or spouse to turn around if they forgot something, encouraging again, problem-solving.

And finally, it just seems mean to me. We all screw up. We all need to be bailed out. And there are plenty of times in life when we can’t. But I question why a school would send the message to a student that, when the solution to their problem is — quite literally — at the schoolhouse door, that it doesn’t help them. “This is for your own good” often isn’t, and I wonder what the lesson the students will really learn from that sign will be.

As educators, when we have the chance to show kindness, we should. As educators, when we have the chance to make sure kids see that home and school can work together in a child’s best interest, we should. And as educators, when we have the chance to remind kids that it’s ok not to be perfect and that we all need help from time to time, we should.

The world can be a cruel place where people treat one another poorly. Our students have the rest of their lives to learn that particular lesson.

They don’t need to learn it from us.

May 16

On Kindness

“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

Tonight, a bunch of people I know, like and respect shared yet another video on Facebook of someone accidentally making a fool of themselves. The people who shared it were other educators, some SLA students, folks I know from other parts of my life… folks from across the myriad pathways of my life. I can only imagine how many times that video has been seen across the world by now.

For whatever reason, tonight, that made me really sad. I wondered what those people would think if that was their student, their parent, their child, their sibling. We’ve become callous to the people in those videos, to the people behind the screen, and maybe too many of us are callous to the people we see in person every day.

Certainly, Schadenfreude is nothing new. People have long gotten pleasure in the suffering of others. But that doesn’t make it right.

More than anything else in this world, I value kindness – real kindness where we extend ourselves to others simply because we can.

Kindness is more than being nice. Kindness requires empathy. It requires listening. It actually requires asking people what they need – not giving them what we think they need, but listening to their needs and acting upon them.

When we engage in true kindness, we must remove the space between us and those around us. We must learn to not treat people as “The Other.” We must enter into what Martin Buber called the “I and Thou” relationship. And it means we must acknowledge that other people are as important as we are.

I want to live in a world where people think about being kind as a reflex. I want to see schools where students, teachers, administrators are willing to see each other, listen to each other, and treat each other with kindness and care.

I truly believe that if we can build schools that operate first and foremost from a place of kindness that our kids can build a world that does as well. Our students will learn what we teach, what we model, what we live. Could there be anything more powerful than seeing our students go out and change the world to a place where people truly cared for one another?

As Mr. Vonnegut said, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Apr 03

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?