AHA! Thoughts, Questions, And Some ‘Aha’ Moments From The Academic Realm

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(Photo courtesy of: St. Paul's School for Girls)

(Photo courtesy of: St. Paul’s School for Girls)

Janet Wolfe
Associate Head for Academics
St. Paul’s School for Girls

At the start of every school year, the precious faces of students eager to return to school, to learn, and to play together reminded me of why the work of educators and schools is so challenging and compelling.

The remarkable and diverse children who participate in our classes and populate our hallways, studios, and athletic fields each day are young and impressionable, sometimes excited by Shakespeare and graphic art and molarity and sometimes not. They are most often happy, friendly, helpful, and open-minded, but occasionally and sometimes without warning, they become frustrated, discontented, and focused only on themselves.

Though challenging, we have each learned and are always focused on the surest ways to build interest and foster academic growth.  Yet the challenge of how to contribute actively to the development of the whole child, while every bit as important, if not more so, than nurturing the mind, can seem more abstract and therefore harder to grasp.

There seem to be endless theories and approaches to guide us in nurturing healthy children.  We must teach children not to bully, to appreciate and seek out difference, to stay physically fit, to take time for reflection, to practice creative endeavors, to play outdoors, and to use the computer safely.

Recently, I came across a graduation address to the class of 2013  delivered by best-selling author George Saunders at Syracuse University. Saunder’s wisdom has resonated for me,  bridging for me many aspects of best practices in educating the whole child.

Kindness, Saunders told the graduates, is the one thing he would regret if he did not have enough of it. Kindness is more important even than Experience, the go-to topic of so many keynote speakers. Saunders exhorts graduates:

Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Saunders’ vision of kindness presents a key to so many good things. It is neither passive nor saccharin. Saunders does not espouse bland compliments or meek silence. Instead, Saunders’ ideal requires us to practice active inclusivity and compassion.

The author vividly recounts the story of a time when he wasn’t cruel but did not take measures to welcome or include a shy new girl in his neighborhood as one of his greatest regrets.  Nothing terrible came of the shy girls’ loneliness or of his own inaction, yet Saunders regrets the missed opportunity to connect with his neighbor.

Kindness builds compassion, develops our world view, and awakens us to the greater good, suggests Saunders, who writes, “We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.”

How can we teach kindness in schools? In the curriculum, we can always be certain to represent multiple viewpoints or approaches, modeling a respect for others. In the hallways, we can actively reward kind actions that we observe, overriding the reinforcement students might receive from their friends for exclusive actions with our own positive reinforcement.  We must also intercede to stop unkind behavior when we see it. As teachers, we can demonstrate kindness and warmth towards one another and all students.

Kindness in schools can extend beyond actions towards others.  As students are developing their sense of self, they will almost certainly encounter failures that will cause them to doubt themselves.  We must teach students to be kind to themselves, to forgive their own failures, and to avoid defining themselves based on their mistakes or challenges.  Rewarding sustained effort over talent, collaboration over isolation, and renewed application as much as successful first attempts are all important in building a sense of self-efficacy in students.

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has been exploring the concept of grit as a predictor of success, suggests that those with grit tend to be optimistic, viewing failures as specific and correctable as opposed to as the result of some broad character flaw or inalterable cosmic situation.

Teaching kindness not only reinforces in students the attitude that we are all, ourselves included, valuable but also has the potential to reinforce an optimistic world view.  After all, when we are kind, good things tend to happen to us and to others, and we feel more in control of our own circumstances.

Ever since Dewey and Sizer, educators have been writing about the obligation of schools to prepare students to contribute to a democracy. And today, we consider our mission as even larger, preparing students for the opportunities and connections in a global society. And somehow, Saunders said what we all believe, what almost every independent school’s mission promises, so succinctly. Be kind. Be kind and you will be inclusive. Be kind, and you will learn from others. Be kind, and you will matter, to yourself and others. Be kind, and you will see and hear better. Be kind, and you will love and be loved.

Above content provided by St. Paul’s School for Girls.

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