Education is a serious business and as teachers we have a lot of people counting on us. We are not only accountable to our students, but often also to their families who are trusting us. We are accountable to the school administration to meet goals set by the school or the government and we are accountable to society at large to educate it’s citizens. This is a huge job and it can get very stressful. That stress can manifest itself in stricter and stricter behavior on our part, we have a lot to get done and not so much time to do it after all. As a former student though, kindness, or lack thereof, is often what I remember the most about my teachers.
In high school I had a favorite teacher. He was strict but I loved his class. I think he was the only teacher I had had up to that point who had set the course book aside and taught the way he knew was best. He mad history come alive for me with slideshows he had put together himself. He selected real reading material that included the Communist Manifesto. As a child of the 80’s in the United States, I had been taught that the USSR was our enemy (a really scary red enemy) and that communism was out to destroy the world. What I read in the Manifesto however did not align with what I had been taught. I began to question everything and that is when I truly began to learn.
This teacher was known for throwing students out into the hallway when they were disruptive. He was strict with his grading and didn’t listen to excuses. One of his rules was that we were not to look at his quizzes while we listened to his lectures, we were to listen and then answer the questions. One day I had my book open to the quiz page when he started the lesson however and without thinking I began to look at it as he spoke. I saw some of the answers as he was speaking. I hadn’t done it consciously and I wasn’t trying to hide what I was doing, so when he looked up he saw that I was looking at the quiz. He asked me to stop and continued with his lecture. I turned bright red and wondered why he hadn’t thrown me out into the hallway. The next half of the class I worried that he was angry with me so after class I bucked up my courage, approached his desk and apologized. I didn’t really even know how to explain that I had not been trying to cheat or break the rules, I think I probably just stood there looking miserable. He was kind though, he actually smiled, something he didn’t usually do, and he told me not to do it again. This was more than 30 years ago and I still remember this small act of kindness.
Kindness is a choice we can make when we are working with our students and it can affect students in ways that we will probably never know. Here are some ideas for how we can choose to be kind to our students individually or as a whole class.
1. Ease up on homework when your students have mid-terms, finals and other big projects in their other classes.
I give students a lot of homework in my classes because they have big goals to reach in a shot about of time. English simply can not be learned fast enough for students to pass the TOEFL if students are only exposed to it for the few hours a week they attend class. I know I expect a lot from my students considering how packed their schedules are with other things like clubs, jobs, other classes and long train commutes. Taking a few minutes at the beginning of the semester to find out when they have big, time-consuming projects and exams in their other classes can help ease the stress of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.
2. Integrate games and other fun activities into your classes when you notice energy levels flagging.
In a 15 week semester, I have noticed that energy levels begin to go down around week 5. The first blush of excitement at starting something new has warn off and vacation is so far away no one can even look forward to it. It is kind of like when you are climbing a mountain and your muscles begin to feel sore but you can’t even see the top yet let alone anticipate getting there. This is about the time when you need a nice stream to stop next to so you can get a drink, wash your face and do something fun before starting up again. In class you might throw you class a little party, take them on a field trip or design some fun games for them to play so they can recharge.
3. If a student who is never late with homework or late for class is suddenly, uncharacteristically late, let them give it to you the next day.
Conscientious students are often their own worst critics, they also usually have really good reasons when they don’t complete their assignments on time. Sometimes they won’t share those reasons with us teachers though because they don’t want to look like they are giving excuses. I have found that they are really relieved when I tell them that I know how hard they are trying and I trust that they have a good reason for being late. I usually give them a pass to hand in late work as long as it does not happen often. I think students are not used to hearing “I trust you.” because they always look surprised and then happy after I say it.
4. Notice if a student looks upset, pull them aside after class and ask them if they are OK.
Are you OK? This one simple question can show your students that you notice and care about them as human beings. Just make sure you are prepared to be a good listener and not judge once you ask this questions. Sometimes when I ask this question to students they burst into tears or launch into stories about things that are happening in their lives that make it very difficult to focus in class. These can be difficult conversations but they can be the most important conversations you have with your students. In my drive to help my students improve their English, I often forget that English is only one aspect of their lives that semester and that students’ lives are complex and interconnected. It is almost impossible to focus on learning a language when it feels like things are falling apart in other aspects of their lives. You can’t always fix what is wrong but just listening means a lot.
5. If you feel like a student is not reaching their potential even though they are doing well in class, don’t let them just slide.
Students come to us with a whole range of abilities and prior experiences with English. Some students have to fight to memorize every single word while others seem to hear something once and it stays with them forever. It is no kindness to let those students just float along passing test after test without really trying. I remember once an extremely bright student approached me after the first 2 weeks of class and asked me if the class was going to get any more difficult. She was so far ahead of her classmates, anything that I gave her would be way above everyone else’s head so I said no. What I should have done was create assignments that would challenge her as well as assignments that were not so difficult and allow the students to choose what they wanted to work on. This would have allowed her to up the level of the class for herself while enabling the other students to choose assignments that would benefit them as well. True kindness is enabling all student to push themselves.
6. Say thank you and you are welcome.
I have noticed that my students will often thank me for giving them a handout and even for giving them a test. I always say “You are welcome.” even though it makes me feel a bit like a flight attendant at the end of a flight saying “Thank you for flying with us!” to every single passenger. Sometimes I say “You are welcome.” 100 times a day.
I also try to thank my students when I notice that they did a particularly good job with something. If I asked them to stay in English for 90 minutes and they do it, I thank them for it. If I notice that one of my students did an extra great job on a homework assignment, I thank him or her for it. I think as teachers, we often get caught up in the routines of teaching and forget how important a simple thank you can be, especially if we are teaching children.
7. Take that struggling student and tell him how important he is to you and to the class.
Let’s face it, school is a competition. We hand out points and grades that enable students to easily see how they are measuring up against each other. This feels great for those students who are winning the game but it feels terrible for those who are losing. We often try to intervene and give those struggling students extra help so they can improve their grades and hopefully learn more but that often just reinforces the message that they are not good enough. Let those struggling students know that they are worth way more than any score they may or may not achieve. They are valuable members of your class and they are important to you just the way they are. They do not need to improve their scores for you to think they are great. Find out what they do well already and value that.
So often school is not a place students love to be. I know my daughter, who is in fourth grade, doesn’t like it most of the time. She doesn’t feel like her teachers care about her. I am sure her teachers do care about her, as they do for all of their students but in the everyday routines of teaching, order, discipline and a focus on learning does not make students feel honored and respected. Small acts of kindness can help students feel special and that can make all the difference.
I just shared this post with my daughter and she would like to share another act of kindness with you. She says that it would be a wonderful thing if teachers let their students get up and walk around sometimes. She feels glued to her seat all day.
What are some small acts of kindness you show to your students?