Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kindness in Our Schools

I teach thirty five sixth graders sixth hour, the last hour of our school day.  The first five minutes students boisterously enter the room after their five minute passing time, bathroom break, and socializing opportunity in the commons area and about ten students, one right after another, ask me a flock of questions and tell me a pack of concerns: “Can I go to the nurse?” “Do you have a pencil I could use?” “What are we doing today?” “Today is my birthday.” “I can't find me folder.” “My mom told me I'm missing an assignment and I turned that in.” “Do you believe in unicorns?” “Do you want to see the  ninja star I made?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “John is bullying me.” “Can I go to the nurse?”

At some point, I need to stop the students from speaking to me and simply start class or I suspect I could spend twenty minutes answering their questions and comments.  I wish I could give them the one on one time and serve their needs, but behind them await the twenty five other students in my classroom.  It takes several minutes to get this class started as they slowly and reluctantly walk to their seats.  I cajole and coerce several of them.  Some days I feel like a cowboy corralling cattle into their pens.  And then, about a week ago, loudly enough for everyone to hear, a girl blurts across the room: “If you don't stop I'm going to slap the Mexican right out of you!”

“Whoa!” I say loudly.  “Not acceptable.  Everybody sit down right now.  No more questions.  No more comments.  No more talking.  Everybody in their seats.” 

And then a boy shouts to another boy, “Shut up, faggot!”

“Whoa!  Not acceptable,” I say again.  “Everyone in their seats now.” 

The kids seem to know that the word they just heard is not acceptable and they quickly move to their seats, sit down, and are silent.

“I don't know what's going on right now,” I say, “but I just heard two things that are completely unacceptable and inappropriate and I am going to address them right now.” 

I remain remarkably calm. For the past ten years as a reminder I've used a white mug with these wise words on it:

It's been my mantra many times.  I must be channeling this quote when the girl yelled out the racist comment and the boy yelled out the homophobic comment because I stay calm and in control and say something along the lines of this:

“M, everybody heard you say what you said because you said it so loudly, so I'm going to acknowledge that you said it, but I'm going to address it to everyone.  What M said is racist.  She may not think it is. She may think it's just funny. You may think it's funny. But in this context, in a public space, too many people could be offended by that and too many people could consider it a racist comment that I am going to say it is a racist comment. And it is not acceptable.”  I point to the large poster I created that has hung in my room for the past two years.  “Read what it says,” I say.  “We respect everyone's cultural diversity in this classroom.  And look around you, boys and girls.  This classroom, your class, your peers represent a multitude of cultural diversity.  I look out into this classroom and I see African Americans and Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans.  And what do you all have in common?  That you are Americans.  And as Americans you have to respect each others' cultural diversity and you have to be aware that racism is not acceptable and racist comments are a part of that racism.  Our country has had a long and ugly history of racism against people of almost every race and it needs to stop now and it needs to stop here.”

I'm proud of that teachable moment turned into a patriotic speech.

But I'm not done:  “And D, the word you said is not acceptable.  Faggot is an ugly and mean word that mean people have called gay people to be mean.  Many people, including myself, find that word is as ugly as the n word.”  I address the entire class: “And when I say the n word I think all of you know what I mean and it's such a mean word that I'm not even going to say it.  The word D just said is like the n word to me when I hear it and I will not tolerate in my classroom and we will not tolerate it our school.  And it is my belief that we shouldn't tolerate it in our families or our society.  It needs to stop.”

I'm proud of that teachable moment turned into a gay acceptance speech. 

I take a deep breath.  The room is silent. Eyes are on me or turned away ashamed and embarrassed.  “Boys and girls,” I continue.  “This year too many of you have been mean to someone else.  Maybe it's something racist or homophobic you said. Maybe it's teasing you did.  Or bullying.  But it's got to stop.  Kids feeling are being hurt.  Be nice to each other.  Be kind to each other.  It's the golden rule that we learned about in our IGH MS values: treat others the way you would want them to treat.  And how do we all want to be treated?  With kindness and respect.  So be kind and be respectful.  It is that simple and that easy and many of you need to start doing it now with your words and actions.  Words hurt.  But words also help and heal and make people feel good.  So choose the ladder.  Be kind.  Be more mindful, more aware of the things you say and make sure what you say is always kind and respectful.”      

I pause.  I take several breaths. No one moves. No one says a word. I said all I needed to say about this particular topic and so I move on to the assignment explanation at hand.

This incident reiterates for me that we as teachers need to teach kindness.  Not that we already aren't, but it seems that more and more students are in our schools are unkind in their words and actions.  It's certainly not all of them, but too many of them to create a true learning environment.  This is not particular to our suburban middle school, but rather indicative of many elementary, middle, and high schools across the country.

I don't know the cause.  Is it parents? Is it lack of spiritual instruction at home or at a place of worship? Is it media bombardment of violence and meanness and  craziness?  Is it poverty?  Whatever the multifaceted and interconnected cause, the symptoms seem rampant and contagious: mean words, mean actions, angry outbursts, insubordination, disrespect, disruption, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, teasing, bullying, fighting, school shootings.  Whatever that multifacted and interconnected cure, it needs to run deep through the many veins of our society and into our families, places of worship, media, class systems, and education. 

It seems to me we need to deliberately and systematically teach kindness and respect to some of our students.  By this (and I'm in the nascent stage of this idea) I mean full courses with curriculum based standards and rich resources and experiences taught by accredited teachers trained in kindness instruction, experience, and assessment.  Our society—our world—is so complex that we need this simple and profound education and foundation. 

It's a radical idea and a paradigm shift in the way we think about our schools and the classes we teach in our schools, but for the future success our schools and our society, our public school system needs to revision and retool for the twenty first century in so many ways.  Teaching kindness stands like a stalwart sentinel at the forefront of this change, the peaceful warrior promoting kindness and spreading the seeds of love. 
As the poster on my classroom door states and which I hope all my students read and understand: 

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