Show A Little Kindness
Creating a warm, caring environment helps students grow both emotionally and intellectually. A conscious effort by the instructor is the only way to achieve this. How do you do this? First, develop empathy; second, model formal manners; and third, create predictable procedures, but temper them with mercy.
Remember what it feels like to be a fourteen-year-old teenager who is certain that the girl sitting next to you and who has never said more than three words to you is the love of your life. Remember what if feels to be a seventh grade boy who is so worried about getting to class on time that you don’t see the door opening into the hallway and crash directly into it breaking your nose. Remember being so preoccupied with what others might think that you couldn’t possibly go into the restroom and use a toilet during class change because other people will know that you have bodily functions. Remember when you were an eleven year old boy and believed belching the alphabet was the funniest and the greatest accomplishment of your life. Remember when you were a thirteen year old girl and you raised your hand four times to answer questions. When the teacher finally called on you, it was the one and only question that you didn’t know. You knew that teacher did this on purpose just to humiliate you. It is easy to laugh at the serious tribulation of the average middle school student, but to these students these concerns are serious and at times overwhelming. As educators, we not only teach our subject’s curriculum, but help build the emotional and social well-being of the child. To do that, the teacher needs to remember what if feels like to be a middle school student and communicate that empathy to them.
Modeling proper manners is a good way for an educator to teach a student how to show respect. To be respected, one must earn respect. Manners involves more than what you say to a student, because body language communicates so much more than words. For example, I have known educators whose body language and vocal tones tell students that they are “the scum of the earth.” The students read this and reflect the attitude back to the instructor. On the other hand, I have known teachers who refer to students as "Mr. Smith” or “Miss Martinez,” thank students for each appropriate gesture and give students compliments as they enter the classroom. The students feel like millionaire guests at a luxury hotel. They love to be pampered and respected, just like we all do. They sub-consciously begin to mirror the behavior and become more civilized. The civility continues when a student is being corrected, “Mr. Brown, I am sorry, but you know you can’t have that cell phone out in class. If you could please put it away, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you for complying with the rules.” (All of this, of course, is said with a smile on his face.)
Finally students comply with rules if there are clear procedures in place and they are consistently reinforced. The Conscious Classroom Management by Rick Smith is a good source for new teachers to develop creative, fun procedures that are easily established. (If you are an administrator, either send your teachers to one of Rick Smith’s workshops or invite him for the entire faculty. He is amazing and very entertaining.) I personally love his “Exit Procedure.” If you have taught middle school or are about to teach it, you know or will learn that the last five minutes of class is not productive. The students stop working, put everything away, wander about the room, so they can be the first to dash out of the door knocking desks, small students and teachers asunder. To avoid this, Rick Smith suggests that you have an “Exit Procedure” that is posted on the wall with a rubric of readiness. Mine was: first, butts in seats, second, feet on floor; third, facing front; fourth, hands on desk; and fifth, smiling. (Smiling was added by a student, because he said it was his favorite class and it felt more like a game. Since people are always happy when they play games, we should smile.) I hold up my fingers to indicate if they are ready to leave. One finger means total mayhem and five fingers means ready to go. The great thing about this procedure is as a teacher, you don’t have to say anything. The students will begin regulating the less manageable students. They know that no one can leave (regardless of when the bell rings) until they reach a five and everyone is in proper exit procedure.
Although it is important to be consistent, sometimes all teachers have to “show a little kindness” and bend the rules. If you have a student who is struggling because of a difficult situation, you may need to stretch the rules a little. For example, I once had a student whose parents were going through a custody battle and when he spent time with his father he was absent often and did not complete his assigned work; as a result, he failed my class. When I learned about the situation, the young man and I sat and discussed this. I began by showing empathy for his situation. Then, I emphasized the importance of taking control of one’s life even when “bad things happen that are beyond our control.” Finally I offered him a contractual agreement to rectify the situation. He had to earn a minimum of a “C” and I would change his grade for the previous quarter to a “D-“; thus avoiding summer school. He earned an “A” the next quarter. It doesn’t matter the details of the agreement. The students learns how to pick himself up and get back in the race, an important life skill. Often students are in a stressful situation and they need a little kindness to be successful.