At the end of May, I finished my 34th year of serving as a public-school educator. This hard truth that my time in school had come to an end rapidly washed over me as I retired from that role. This summer, as I’ve been reflecting on my glorious career that found me growing alongside every single developmental age and stage (from Pre-K to 12th grade), I think back through many changes and feel grateful for the one constant that anchored my soul, and kept me joyfully connected: Character.
My fondest memories date back to ten years ago at Westwood Elementary School. We used the 11 Principles as the guideline on our journey down Character Road, and ended up earning the Texas State School of Character award and getting recognized as a National School of Character. Those were legacy days for sure, because we were immersed in something special. We were in a climate in which people told us they wish they could “pull up a chair and stay here forever.” We cultivated a climate where students wanted to be in school (as evidenced by our 98.2% gold standard attendance rate). Our volunteers were clocking unprecedented hours on campus, and our State test scores were as high as they could ever be. Westwood Elementary was indeed a magical place to be.
Why? Because we chose Principle 4, creating a caring community, as a cornerstone. It wasn’t something that we left to chance either, but something that we worked on strategically every day through classroom meetings, service learning projects, faculty retreats, family gatherings, and community partnerships. Thinking with our hearts connected us and everything else fell into place when we focused on nurturing those caring connections. Today, this thought still holds true and may be even more critical.
Effective character education arms students with social and emotional learning skills to strengthen, and protect them from the inside out. It provides leadership and gives opportunities for students to make choices and utilize their voices, so they can become ‘value-able’ citizens who will work to make every tomorrow better.
Here are a few of our timeless tips for creating a caring climate:
- Live generously. What we focus on, we get more of; what we appreciate, appreciates. Teach generosity by modeling it. Let students see you sharing what you have, and they will follow suit. Encourage classroom jobs so that they can feel like a helping hero in your class family. Before you know it, they’ll be bringing in ideas for how they can share their wealth to help others.
- Practice empathy. While we are hard-wired for empathy, this virtue must be taught and practiced. Dr. Michele Borba reminds us, “Dormant empathy does no good.” Providing opportunities for your students to step into one another’s stories, so that they can understand and feel what others are feeling will help stretch and nurture this powerful virtue. Use fiction or film clips to help you elevate empathy.
- Treat people with compassion. Compassion requires embracing someone else’s feelings and co-suffering with a desire to alleviate their pain. Put this word on your students’ hearts so that they can learn to practice compassion with others as well as for themselves.
- Show gratitude. Beyond saying “thank you,” how do you teach your students to not only be grateful but DO gratitude? Handwritten notes, a kind compliment, or an affirming email can work wonders to foster an attitude of gratitude in your character building.
- Listen with your whole body. Listening to understand rather than to respond with our whole body tells the person you’re talking to, “I see you. I hear you. I’m with you. You matter.” At Westwood, we taught the Capturing Kids’ Hearts SOLER formula: Square up, Open posture, Lean in, make Eye contact, Respond respectfully.
- Apologize and forgive. If we want to nurture and maintain healthy relationships, we should model and teach how to apologize and how to forgive. Practice saying, “I’m sorry, please forgive me” with your students. If you hear, “It’s okay,” remind them that it’s not okay and that a more appropriate response might be, “I forgive you.”
- Donate time and talents. How can you teach others to lead with a servant heart? Discover their strengths and help them use those strengths for good. If they have the gift of words, let them post inspirational quotes around the room. Maybe their gift is drawing, encourage them to make class birthday cards. If they’re outgoing and friendly, they can invite others to play at recess. Help them find ways to serve with a smile.
- Love wholeheartedly. Need a classroom mantra? How about: Love to teach, teach to love. It won’t matter how much academic content students consume if they don’t feel like they belong, matter, and that they are loved. Show your students how it feels to love, and be loved unconditionally every moment of each day.
In the end, it’s best to put cultivating character and relationships over programs and rigor.
What will you do differently this year as you work with intention to create a climate of caring?
Barbara Gruener is a retired school counselor after working 34 years in the public school system.