Updated: Jun 2, 2020
This article was originally published on the Contemporary Education Magazine in mainland China. Written in English by Tatiana Oseguera and translated into Mandarin by Keeven Huang.
Some years ago, when I was a Literature teacher in a private school in Mexico, a student wrote me a letter saying, “Ms Taty, I like you a lot, not because you are funny and smart, but because you really care about us”. Back then, I was a rookie, and this letter made me feel super good and accomplished. However, years after, on a trip to my parents’ house, I was going through my stuff and I found the letter. Having it in my hands, reading it one more time after all this time, made me realize that what my student told me with those simple words, meant more than what I understood twelve years ago. Reading her words reminded me why I quit my job as a lawyer and became a teacher: I wanted to make a difference in the world.
Through the years, I have grown as a teacher, I have studied about pedagogy and methodology, I have taken a bunch of courses on education, attended conferences and symposiums. Nevertheless, it has been from my students that I have really learned how to be a teacher, how to “make a difference in the world”.
That letter I mentioned, was a revelation to me: the key to change the world is to care about the world. Once that you start caring, changes start to happen.
Why? Well, haven’t you experienced a warm feeling when you witness an act of kindness or an altruistic action?
It is a human reaction to feel better, more connected to others, more willing to help and do “the right thing”, after being in the presence of someone doing something good, someone “caring”. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it “elation”, a “warm feeling in the chest, a sensation of expansion in [the] heart, an increased desire to help, and increased sense of connection with others. A manifestation of humanity’s ‘higher’ or ‘better’ nature.”.
Look around you, pay attention to other teachers. Haven’t you noticed that students from a class where the teacher is kind, tend to be more successful than students from classes where the teacher is mean or careless? (Do not confuse kindness with weakness. Being a kind teacher, does not mean that you are going to let your students to walk all over you. Boundaries and respect should not be forgotten). If the teacher cares, chances are, the majority of the students will care as well, at least enough to give it a try.
When children are surrounded by kind people, they are, definitely, happier. All those good feelings that a person experiences when kindness is involved are produced by endorphins that activate areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure, social connection and trust. The so called “elation” happens not only in the person that receives the act of kindness, but also in the ones that performs it, and the people that witness the action. Thus, we could say, it is contagious.
How to create a proper scenario for the kindness to flourish?
I have come to the conclusion that a good way is to include mindfulness into the routines.
Before going any further, let’s define the two words that I will be using in this article.
PhD Karyn Hall writes, “Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Affection, gentleness, warmth, concern, and care are words that are associated with kindness. While kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak, that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength. Kindness is an interpersonal skill.”
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Therefore, if we possess mindfulness, being kind is a natural step we take.
Why should teachers add teaching kindness and mindfulness in their programs? These are some of the reasons:
1. Happier children.
2. Improved concentration and better results in school.
3. Healthier children, stress free.
4. Enhanced teacher well-being.
5. Greater self-esteem and sense of belonging.
6. Better peer acceptance
At this point, you are probably thinking that this type of “thing” is not for you because you are a serious teacher, plus, you have too many requirements to fulfill and this would just take too much preparation, and you are probably working full time with large classes and simply can’t waste your time with some nonsense that sounds more like a fairy tale.
I know the feeling, and I know that if you are reading this magazine, it is because you definitely care about your students. That is why, I want to share with you my experience.
Where to start?
Gradually I began to incorporate into my classes, activities and routines which main focus wasn’t the subject I was teaching, but the strengthening of positive attitudes. Instead of concentrating on getting the students to learn grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc., etc., I doubled my efforts creating an atmosphere where they could feel relevant, secure and happy.
Currently, I have completely changed my vision about teaching. I have integrated into the curriculum mindfulness, kindness and growth mindset, without forgetting of my personal touch of art and music, and when possible some STEM or STEAM.
Every change I made brought an improvement, not only in my students’ attitude, but in their learning progress. I hasn’t mattered the country where I have applied my new system, happy students learn faster and more efficiently.
Once that my students get the rhythm of my lessons, the learning process runs smoother.
Have a routine! Like I have said in a previous article, having a routine in your classes makes your life easier, and your students will benefit from this.
My routine includes an opening with music and dance, an introduction to the main topic, the teaching time, the student time, a mindfulness moment and a closing with music too.
Now, what kind of activities can help you introducing mindfulness and kindness into your program?
In this article, I want to share with you some of the activities I have done with my students since last year with the most amazing results.
Here, I want to bring to your attention that I am an ESL teacher, which means that most of my students don’t speak English. Why do I mention this? Because, even though we don’t speak the same language, and my classes are about learning a foreign language, the results I have had are amazing. Can you imagine how much greater could your classes be compared to mine?
SITTING STILL LIKE A FROG
A mindfulness exercise, by Eline Snel:
“See if you can pretend to be a frog sitting very, very still on a lily pad. While you sit on that lily pad, Mr. Frog, you breathe. If you move too much, your lily pad will tip over, and you’ll wind up in the water. So, you just sit still as your green frog tummy goes in and out. Although you can leap high into to the sky, you can also sit still like a statue, like you are now. Because you’re a frog, you just watch what’s happening all around you and within you, and you don’t jump into action right away. You simply sit still and breathe on that lily pad, storing up your energy. Notice how your tummy in and out, Mr. Frog. In and out.”
As you breathe in and out, trace around your fingers. On the in-breath, trace up the outside of your left pinky finger with your right index finger. On the outbreath, trace down the other side. Repeat for the next four fingers.
What do you get from these exercises?
a. It helps students calm down and focus.
b. It improves their concentration skills, which should help them to remember things better.
c. Students will be less impulsive (and not immediately act on what they are thinking or feeling)
d. Students will have some degree of control over their inner world without rejecting or repressing anything.
e. For children, practicing with the attention of a frog is an accessible way of tuning in to their breathing.
f. Students practice listening and follow instructions
g. Students get exposed to new vocabulary
THE FIVE MAGIC WORDS OF THE HAND
We learned that, in order to communicate successfully in English, it is a “must” to be polite. I want the students to understand that, even if they don’t know all the words, if they are polite and use the right kind words, when they find themselves in a situation where they need to communicate in English, people will be willing to help them.
The five magic words of the hand are, thank you, you are welcome, sorry, please and excuse me.
I drew a big hand with each word on a different finger. In class, we learned about the words, one by one, adding body gestures to make them easier to remember. We practice for two weeks, at the beginning of each class, we watched videos and sang songs on the theme. By the end of the second week, I had students using the words not only in the classroom, but everywhere! Now, after almost a year, I still hear my students using the words. It is a warm feeling.
RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS CALENDAR
Instead of simple learning Christmas vocabulary, why not to encourage children to be kind while they get to practice English? How?
Well, we began with a Random Acts of Kindness calendar. Every day of the week, from Monday to Friday, we would learn a new way of being kind. I used very simple words, and I tried to repeat the verbs to make it easier.
For example, “Say thank you to the bus driver”, “Give a hug”, “Say ‘I love you’ to someone you care about”, among others.
As a reward, students that completed all the good deeds, got a cute pencil from me.
It was a great feeling to have many students running after me every day to show me they have accomplished the good action of the day. I got many messages and videos on the WeChat from students practicing the sentences and the actions.
For both, mindfulness and kindness:
From seed to tree
We all imagine that we are little seeds that start growing. The more water and sunlight we get, the stronger we grow. We repeat the exercise two or three times until everyone is calm. The last time, when we are already big trees, I tell them, "Suddenly, we have no more water. People are not taking care of us. Then, I ask them to open their eyes and take three deep breaths.
Next, we sit down to talk about the experience, “What did you feel when you were a tree? ”. After hearing all the answers, I ask, "What do you think we could do to help trees to grow strong and beautiful?”
It was the beginning of April, the month of the Earth Day. “From seed to tree” is an exercise intended to awaken the respect for nature.
For this year, after seeing all the good outcomes from last year, I have added new things to the curriculum.
This term, instead of learning the “rules” for the class, we have learned positive sentences, with words of kindness. The sentences read like this, “I always love”, “I always care”, “I always respect” and “I always share”.
We have a big board on the first floor that says: “Play nice, work hard, stay kind”
On this board, since the second week of November (November 13, is the World Kindness Day) every teacher will take the picture of the three students that every week have follow those goals, and we will post their photos there. This is our little way of encouraging good attitudes that focus on the process more than on the results.
No matter the date, kindness should be regular part of every curriculum. If we want a better world, we have to start somewhere, right?
All these activities can be “mix and match” with your regular activities. At the beginning, it might seem like you are not going to be able to finish all of your other tasks, however, once that the students and you get used to the routine, you will cover all the aspects of your program even more effectively and efficiently than before, I have no doubt about this. Try it!
Start with simple changes, be patient and kind to yourself. I promise, you will notice the differences.
I believe I can make the difference in the world and so do you!