BOSTON — One of the students at my high school dresses like a goth: Black clothes, charcoal makeup, dyed black hair and black combat boots. I don’t know her name and I’ve never taught her, but every time we pass each other in the hallway, I smile and say, “Hi!” And she smiles and says “Hi!” back.
I do this with lots of kids I don’t know. My school is enormous — almost 2,000 students — and I only teach a handful of them every year. Yet I find myself constantly talking with students I don’t know in the hall, in the library, or outside the cafeteria:
“Hey, nice Patriots sweatshirt!”
“Hi, how are you?”
“Good morning, and happy Friday!”
“Your hair looks great today!”
Every time that I, a teacher whom these students do not know, say hello or offer a compliment, I watch them smile, straighten their posture, feel the warmth of recognition. And I am affirmed in my decision to spread small daily acts of kindness throughout my school in whatever ways I can. Our students need that.
In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, I have listened to politicians and activists argue, I have heard pundits and PR reps lay blame. And I have watched students stand up and refuse to back down. They are asking for us to see them, to listen.
We, as teachers, make a significant difference in the lives of our students. There is always one more thing we can, and should, do. It’s simple. Offer compassion. Model empathy. See them, and listen to them.
While compassion may not, in and of itself, prevent another senseless act of terror, it is a balm nevertheless. It is a step in the right direction toward a culture that does not value violence but our common humanity.
Many of our students feel pushed and pulled by the forces that too often reduce them to a number: standardized testing, free and reduced-price lunch status, school rankings for AP and SAT scores, and college acceptance rates. They are disciplinary actions. They are their GPAs. They are lumped together with other “honors students” or “problem kids” or whatever labels we adults ascribe to them. There are few second chances and lots of lectures about “tough love” that fail to teach resilience or provide support.
What students want, however, is to be seen, to be heard. I distinctly remember — and I would venture a guess that most adults do, too — wanting an adult to recognize me, not to judge me based on my last essay grade or my clothes or what extracurricular activities I did or didn’t do. Those things are transient, often changing. Many adolescents want to try on different identities, to take risks or even to fail, to figure out where they fit in.
Far too often, when teachers and other adults treat them as though their value depends upon these other measures, though, our students become depressed, isolated and demoralized. They feel small and hurt — and sometimes they want to hurt back.
Compassion, on the other hand, does not make judgments. It does not care about grades. It honors students as whole, treats them as individuals, and offers both forgiveness and support.
Compassion might not stop a bullet, but it may prevent someone from pulling the trigger in the first place.
In 2013, a gunman entered a school outside Atlanta. What stopped him from killing students and staff members? A secretary named Antoinette Tuff, who offered him love and empathy, who shared her own personal struggles, who successfully talked him out of violence.
Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” What would happen if all of our students felt like their full humanity was acknowledged in schools? What would happen if we educators modeled kindness and valued our students’ whole selves? I do not pretend to think that doing this would heal all mental health issues or solve all behavioral problems, but I have seen its efficacy at work in my own classroom, and I believe in its power.
It may take some time for us to figure out how to train all educators in social-emotional and cultural competencies, to redesign curricula and instruction, to revamp our school cultures. But I would rather be armed with compassion and love than anything else.
And for now, we can all start with a smile and a simple “Hi.”