From a Teacher to a Teacher: Kindness in the Classroom

Dear fellow educator,

I think it goes without saying that these are crucial times for our young people, not only with regard to education, but also in forming the next generation’s principles. All politics aside, our students are coming of age in a time where kindness, empathy, and integrity have been shoved aside in favor of judgment, rivalry, and naiveté. As we move into a new school year, fervent introspection has me focusing on one question: how can we craft and nurture ‘goodness’ in our schools?  

Perhaps one of the biggest perceived roadblocks in our quest to add kindness to the curricula is the fact that we are here to educate, not parent our students. No matter what age, our students come to us with a belief system and moral gauge that far exceeds our reaches. With so many uncontrollable variables at play in our classrooms, how could we possibly begin to stomp out hate that may have been engrained in a child since day one? Is it even acceptable, as mere educators, for us to take on that role or responsibility? These perplexing questions may forever go unanswered.

Instead of looking at changing the child’s cognizance, I’ll begin to nurture kindness by looking at my personal practices in the classroom—let’s consider it a ripple effect of sorts.   

  • Use seating charts to recognize the “lonely students.” This is a concept used by a veteran teacher from Texas throughout her entire career. On Fridays I’ll ask students to write down the names of two people that they would like to sit with next week. I will make clear that these requests are not guaranteed to be granted.  Students will occasionally get their wishes. However, the key here is that I am not concerned with the seating chart in the least—who sits beside whom is of no concern to me. I am looking instead for the names that are not written down—which child is never sought out as a seating partner? Are these missing names indicative of a bullying problem? Do I recognize signs of grief or depression in any of the students that are not requested as seating partners? By analyzing the seating requests, I am better able to reach out to the children that may feel lonely or withdrawn and potentially change the course of their unhappiness.
  • Praise acts of kindness just as much, if not more, than test scores, grades, or GPAs. Academia is designed to breed competition through class rankings, SAT scores, honor roll lists, etc. Several schools in Montgomery County celebrate their seniors’ achievements by posting each student’s college admittance for the coming year in the local newspaper—a great opportunity for young scholars to shine. However, with such recognition comes an inevitable ranking or hierarchy among graduates. Seeing my name and future university in print, followed by so-and-so attending Harvard, would undoubtedly sour my sense of accomplishment. Yes—that’s the real world—someone is always going to be smarter, more successful, better… Consider this: Focusing on achievements in kindness would not take away from anyone’s academic achievements. This praise and acknowledgment would simply be an additional measure of character—one that is just as important (and sometimes as lucrative) as academic success. If a student is struggling academically, try showing appreciation for that student’s kindness. Highlight students that have shown acts of kindness to others—use this as an opportunity to place value on the concept of being a good person.
  • Model empathy at any opportunity. Seeing as I teach middle school, empathy is something that many of my students are still grasping. During the adolescent years, the brain is primed to self-serve. This sometimes creates an inability to see things from another’s perspective. It’s not that they don’t want to—it’s that the adolescent brain is still maturing. Demonstrate how empathy works by expressing your own instances of relating on an emotional level. Try starting the conversation with, “You know that we all make mistakes…” or, “I’m upset that you’re getting down on yourself for one low grade…” or, “I see that you’ve really tried to improve and I admire your effort.”

 

Problems at School: For Parents of Middle Schoolers

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Middle school is arguably one of the biggest leaps for students in terms of educational transitions. Gone are the days of your child having one classroom for all subjects. Gone is the ease of contacting one teacher for any issue at school. And, gone are the training wheels of support and constant micromanagement. This is not to say that success in middle school is completely left up to the child, but it is much different from the hand holding that you have been accustomed to seeing at the elementary level. Up until now, as a parent you have been there for your learner every step of the way, and elementary school has made it easy to monitor, assist, and motivate your child. However, now that your child has reached middle school, the responsibilities begin to shift from the teachers and parents to the students. This is not always an easy transition for parents or children—however, middle school is the place to learn and develop these self-advocacy skills. So, how can you best assist your middle schooler as she navigates through this transitional time in her education? The truth is, there is no quick fix or recipe for success when it comes to parental involvement at school. There are, however, a few suggestions to answer parents’ frequently asked questions.

FAQ: How can I help my middle schooler if his or her grades are slipping?
Since middle school can be an abrupt change, your child may find that academics are suddenly more difficult. If you notice a slip in motivation, it is essential to nip it in the bud early. Talk with your middle schooler at home before contacting teachers. It is important that your child begins to feel a sense of ownership in his or her education. If parents go over their child’s head and take it directly to the teacher, the child will view this as a negative move. Not only are you disregarding your child’s place in the conversation, but you are also sending the message that he or she needs you to fix the problems or clean up the messes at school. A key component of middle school is the idea that students become their own agents of change for their education. Instead of immediately contacting the teacher, have an open and honest conversation about what is happening with recent school work. Allow your child to explain how he is struggling. Then brainstorm suggestions and methods for your child to get extra help on his own.

FAQ: What should I do if I think my child is being bullied?
Unfortunately, we have all been there. Middle school can be downright ugly and painful for many children. This is not a coincidence—this transitional time is marked by hormonal changes, insecurities, and the typical desire to be accepted by peers. With these commonalities comes an unfortunate tendency to be self-absorbed, self-conscious, and openly cruel if it means fitting in. If you notice that your middle schooler is exhibiting signs of bullying, be sure to first validate your child’s concerns and feelings about the social issue at school by listening. When children are systematically bullied, they are made to feel isolated and insecure. The first thing that they need is to know that you are in their corner. Do not downplay the bullying; do not minimize the impact or imply that your child should toughen up.

FAQ: At what point should I involve the school if there are bullying or social issues?
Because the consequences of bullying can be severe, especially in middle school during those formative years, it is essential to have conversations with the school immediately. Do not insert yourself in conversations with the other child or their parents—the school should be the liaison when it comes to bullying incidents. As thoroughly as possible, gather details about each incident, such as who, what, when, and where the bullying occurred. Remember, bullying is often defined as repeated instances of aggression, intimidation, or humiliation revolving around an imbalance of power or strength. One rude comment or act is not classified as bullying. If the bullying is happening in a cyber realm, document and print the evidence of cyberbullying. When meeting with the school, ask to meet before or after school hours. This will alleviate your child’s anxiety about the bullying increasing by “tattling.”

Problems at School: For Parents of High Schoolers

 

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Challenges at school are sure to emerge at one point or another. Of course, these challenges will vary in frequency and type, just as all learners are met with different trials as they make their way through their education. As a parent, you have been there for your learner every step of the way. Advocating, motivating, and assisting in every manner that you can, you have managed to see your child through to high school. However, now that the stakes are higher, the challenges or problems are likely more substantial, as well. So, how can you best manage to help your high schooler as he or she navigates some of the more crucial years of his or her education? The truth is, there is no quick fix or recipe for success when it comes to parental involvement at school. There are, however, a few suggestions to answer parents’ frequently asked questions.

FAQ: How can I help my high schooler if his or her grades are slipping?

Be sure to begin with a conversation at home. Often times, if parents go over their child’s head and take it directly to the teacher, the child will view this as a negative move. Not only are you disregarding your child’s place in the conversation, but you are also sending the message that he or she needs you to fix the problems or clean up the messes at school. Instead of immediately contacting the teacher, have an open and honest conversation about what is happening with recent school work. Allow your child to explain how he is struggling. Then brainstorm suggestions and methods for your child to get extra help on his or her own.

FAQ: What should I do if I think my child is being bullied?

First, be sure to validate your child’s concerns and feelings about the social issue at school. When children are systematically bullied, they are made to feel isolated and insecure. The first thing that they need is to know that you are in their corner. Do not downplay the bullying; do not minimize the impact or imply that your child should toughen up. Consider your emotions before involving the school. Bullying is an extremely sensitive issue for children, and therefore, their parents. Your first instinct may be to demand action on part of the school. Before contacting administrators and school counselors, be sure to have your ducks in a row with regard to the instances of bullying. As thoroughly as possible, gather details about each incident, such as who, what, when, and where the bullying occurred. Remember, bullying is often defined as repeated instances of aggression, intimidation, or humiliation revolving around an imbalance of power or strength. One rude comment or act is not classified as bullying. If the bullying is happening in a cyber realm, document and print the evidence of cyberbullying. When meeting with the school, ask to meet before or after school hours. This will alleviate your child’s anxiety about the bullying increasing by “tattling.”

FAQ: What do I do if my child is lacking academic motivation?

High schoolers may experience a drop in motivation or drive. While this is somewhat typical, it is equally disheartening for parents, especially considering that high school years are pivotal for determining college and career readiness. Your high school aged child is at a point where a lack of motivation can dramatically affect his or her options for the future. This is the time for an honest conversation, a reality check if you will, that is crucial to have with your child. Ask her what her plans are for the future. Ask what the ultimate career goal would be if success were guaranteed. Then, follow that up with a discussion on realistic steps to take in order to reach these goals. Goals aren’t achieved by hoping for the best—proactive steps toward achievement are essential. Set a game plan for getting your child back on track in terms of motivation.

No Name-Calling Week: A Teacher’s Approach

 

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Many people are unaware of No Name-Calling Week. To be honest, I did not know about this week-long movement until recently. We educators, however, are all too aware of the name-calling that occurs regularly in our schools.

As a former teacher, I have been privy to the impact that name-calling and other bullying can have on an adolescent. As we’ve all experienced ourselves, when students mature into adults, they become less concerned with how others view them, the names others call them, or any rumors being spread. Thankfully, with age and maturity comes a secure sense of self and disregard for teasing, bullying, etc. For middle schoolers and teens, however, arriving at this notion of self-awareness and confidence can be a rough and seemingly endless road.

As teachers and educators, it is our job to be tuned in to the goings on in our classrooms and hallways. Now more than ever before bullying, whether cyber or otherwise, can have tragic outcomes. It is no longer a case of “toughen up,” “shake it off,” or “pay no mind to what others have to say about you.” Hormones, emotions, and peer pressures have the potential to brew the perfect storm of misery for a bullied teen. With consequences as serious as depression, school violence, and suicide, we cannot simply chalk it up teenagers being teenagers. We cannot simply ask victims to “brush it off.”

Even more difficult sometimes is the fact that adolescents may not come right out and say that they are being bullied. In fact, teens tend to think that “tattling” on the bully will undoubtedly make things worse–which is often the case. A keen awareness can sometimes make all the difference for a teen that is struggling with being bullied. These are some common indicators that a student may be a victim of bullying:

  • Unexplainable injuries such as scratches, bruises, etc.
  • Frequent health complaints such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, refusal to work in groups
  • Suddenly feeling sick, faking illness, or asking to go to the nurse regularly
  • Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or constantly asking to complete classwork during lunch
  • Lethargy, low-energy, or falling asleep in class
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or frequent absences
  • Depressed demeanor or frequent crying
  • Self-destructive behaviors or mentions of suicide

If you notice some of these signs in a student, make a point to discuss observations of the student with colleagues, guidance counsellors, and other adults. Bullying is often an embarrassing and sensitive point of contention for students–the last thing they may want to do is discuss their personal woes with a teacher. Gather as much information about the student’s behavior trends and peer groups first. Then approach the student or parent if necessary.

Too often, victims of bullying believe that no one notices or cares about their struggles. Teachers can shatter this notion by being a listener, advocate, or disciplinarian if need be in bullying situations.

Parents Play an Important Role in the Anti-Bullying Movement

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No Name-Calling Week is a holiday that recognizes the importance of acceptance while taking anti-bullying measures in schools and having honest discussions about the severity of bullying.

As an educator, I am all too aware of the impact that name-calling and other bullying can have on an adolescent. However, as we all know, teens are not exactly forthcoming about their emotions. Parents especially may be left in the dark in terms of happenings at school and with peers. Moreover, the accessibility of technology and smartphones has made it even easier for adolescents to bully one another. Snapchat, instagram, vine, and other social media forums are often laden with unkind, sometimes downright harsh, remarks and comments.

Whether you personally experienced bullying as a teen or not, you likely know of someone who has been affected by bullying. It is important that parents understand just how serious this issue can be for a young person. Hormones, emotions, and peer pressures create a breeding ground for insecurity. Bullies often exploit these already-vulnerable teens, making life significantly harder in and out of school. While teens may be intent on guarding their private lives from their parents, it is vital that parents know the signs of a bully and a victim.

Signs that your teen may be a victim of bullying:

  • Unexplainable injuries, or an attempt to hide or make excuses for odd injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothes, phones, tablets, jewelry, etc.
  • Complaining of frequent headaches or stomach aches; attempting to miss school suddenly
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating after school (often a sign that a child is avoiding lunch in the cafeteria)
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares; oversleeping at any opportunity
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, sports, or other extracurriculars
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations; skipping plans or ignoring invitations from peers
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Prolonged depressed mood or talks of suicide

Signs that your teen may be bullying others:

  • Frequently in trouble for fighting or verbally attacking others
  • Sudden change of peer group
  • Noticeable increase in aggressive behavior
  • Behavioral and/or academic trouble at school
  • Impulsive, irresponsible, or reckless behavior
  • Overly concerned with popularity and new peer groups

Of course, you know your child better than anyone–and you know their level of openness with you. It is okay to have open and honest conversations about school that focus on social topics, as opposed to simply asking only about academics. While autonomy is a major part of teen development, there are plenty of occasions when parents can and should get involved. Cases of bullying are certainly one of those instances.

For more information on how parents can discuss issues of bullying and school violence with teens, visit the link below.

http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/bullying_tips_for_parents.page