When you’ve been teaching for a few years, you’re bound to come across a class or three that threaten to drive you to madness; not necessarily because they don’t work hard or don’t behave well, but more often than not, because they just can’t get along with each other. Personally, I’ve experienced this in primary and secondary teaching; in small special needs groups of 6 students; in individual classes and in numerous classes over a year group. When your students display a distinct lack of patience, empathy or kindness; when they’re ‘all up in each other’s business’ and salivating at the thought of getting a classmate in trouble, what do you do? You have to explicitly encourage kindness.
You do this for your students, because however high-flying a child may be academically, if they’re selfish and cruel then they’re going to struggle to find happiness in later life. You also do it for your own sanity. The daily wear and tear of dealing with constant squabbling and bickering can be soul-destroying for even the most positive teachers, and it has a massive impact on the pace of learning and attitudes in your classroom.
Really, I think the foundation blocks of this need to be – and usually are – laid in early education and then reiterated in secondary education. Although there are ways around it, teenagers are harder to get through to and you just can’t be anywhere near as ‘cheesy’ if you’re trying to encourage year 9 to be kind, as you can with year 3.
In secondary teaching, I found that short, sharp chunks thrown into other subjects or tutor time served well as reminders to be good people.
Following a fantastic assembly about ‘Random Act of Kindness,’ I was inspired to buy Danny Wallace’s book of the same name, and used this to regularly inspire or at least remind my form of practical ways that they could be kind towards others.
It’s a great book to dip in and out of once a week, and make a suggestion like, ‘swap places behind you in a queue,’ ‘share your lunch with someone’ or ‘give someone a genuine complement.’ Even if the ideas aren’t acted upon, at least there’s a dialogue in the classroom which is focused on helping others. Let’s face it: teenagers can be a pretty miserable and self-absorbed lot so it won’t do them any harm to consider other people for a couple of minutes and take the focus away from themselves.
One of the rather brilliant secondary teacher at my last school took this a step further. She asked children in her tutor group to fill in slips with their name and the act of kindness that they completed, and then picked out a name like a raffle every week and awarded them a little prize. I think she’s really onto something here. In many of the primaries I’ve visited, raffle tickets are awarded for good behaviour, along with house points and individual awards. It would take no extra effort, just a little specific language, to really praise acts of kindness along with good effort and behaviour.
“Well done Daniel! Your name is going into the raffle now because I heard that when Jacob and Elkie were arguing, you tried really hard to resolve this.”
“Amy – you’ve earned a point for your house because you chose to ignore Will tapping the ruler next to you and didn’t interrupt your learning by telling tales.”
“Everyone on the Red table gains a team point because although they did have a difference of opinion, they managed to listen to each other and sort this out without any adult help, so they didn’t waste any learning time!”
Furthermore, overt references to kindness and awareness of others should be part of a whole-school ethos and not simply the responsibility of the class teacher. I was in a junior school not long ago which held a termly ‘positive psychology’ week. Each class throughout school had their own activities to complete and half an hour at the end of each day to do this – year 5 for example, had booklets for each child in the class that were passed to all classmates who wrote specific, positive comments about that person. Activities from all classes were then shared in a positive psychology assembly in front of parents.
Another primary school I visited had embedded ‘Building Learning Power’ in to the teaching and rewards system of their school. Every Friday, students would vote for two students in their class who had shown certain learning skills, including that of effective listening, empathy and collaboration, qualities linked to kindness. It was lovely to see children, especially the youngest, reading out such specific praise about their classmates. Additionally, because this was something that happened weekly, and because it came from the children rather than the adults, noticing and describing things your classmates had done well was just part of the school code.
When all is said and done, it’s remarkably easy to create a culture of warmth and kindness in your classroom and school. This will spare you stress, save you time and hopefully foster a sense of care, support and encouragement between your students.