A (long) while back I blogged about vision.
Since then, a lot has changed. I moved country, moved from coaching teachers to being in the classroom myself again, switched from working with young adults who towered above me to waist-height humans, and studied a masters in the meanwhile.
‘What’s this got to do vision?’, I hear you say.
Well, I guess it’s safe to say that my vision – the ‘why’ in my work – has also changed a great deal since the last time I blogged about it. In this blog, I will share a few reflections on how my vision has changed, why having a clear vision is important given the current world reality our students face, and provide some practical ways to promote kindness – a big part of my vision – in your classroom.
It all started with the lottery.
Before you all get excited, I didn’t win the lottery and decide to set up a school / buy a lifetime’s supply of Cadbury’s milk chocolate buttons! That pipeline dream all depends on me starting to play the lottery in the first place …
Rather, it started with a conversation about the lottery. Every morning, we start class with a curious question of the day. The kids take it in turns to choose the question, and we try to make sure it’s a “meaningful” question: one that helps us to better understand each other’s personalities, hopes and dreams.
Around Christmas time, one of the kids came up with a pretty awesome morning question: “If you were to win the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?”
At first, my heart sank as I envisaged responses of “buy 100 Lamborghinis” or “buy a mansion equipped with Playstations in every room”.
Oh ye, of little faith, Sarah. Turns out, my kids have pretty developed ideas about how money can be put to good use. Amongst setting up their own social enterprises, donating their money to charities that they care about, and finding homes for the homeless, one of my little troopers said:
“If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would donate all of the money to children who can’t afford to go to school or university so that they can get a good education… because one day they might be able to change the world”.
At that given moment, I realised that I was witnessing what every teacher that cares about educational inequality wishes to hear. They were finally getting on board with this whole “education isn’t fair” thing, I thought, and they want to do something about it.
I realised that after 9 years of living and breathing and banging the educational inequality drum in my own special way, this was my vision finally, truly coming to life in my classroom. Oh, how my heart skipped a beat on hearing one of my students so eloquently articulating everything I’d hoped that I would be able to communicate to them so that one day, all of this ‘fluffy’ (and quite frankly cheesy) vision stuff would work it’s way into the lives of future generations!
“My kids are going to change the world!”, I thought gleefully. But wait… I also realised that despite my students (apparently) taking on board my vision and really wanting to be a part of this movement for fair education, what they were actually telling me subconsciously was that they didn’t feel equipped to take action without the help of hard cash (precisely the thing that started this whole educational inequality business in the first place). Winning the lottery might allow them to take the easy route and give them the fast-ticket to addressing educational inequality in some shape or form, and let’s face it, on a relatively small scale, but it wasn’t about to bring about systematic, meaningful change if I was going to be real with myself about this.
I was reminded by this episode that this wasn’t and isn’t about my vision, it’s about them. And here they were, telling me that the solution to “the problem” could only be fixed by infinite amounts of money. “This isn’t what i want for them”, I thought. If they see money as the only way to fix this big ugly truth of inequality we’re trying to deal with, then I’m not doing enough to equip them with the skills or strength of character that they need to tackle some of the biggest challenges in our communities.
So, as you’ve probably guessed, ever since that morning I’ve been grappling with the difficult issue of how unfit for purpose what I’m currently teaching my students is in preparing them for the (increasingly) difficult world they face. So last week, I decided to ask the morning question: “What skills, knowledge, or character traits do you need to change the world?”
What did they say?
Yep, that’s right. Not one of them mentioned world-class numeracy skills, technological savviness, a first-class degree, or a fast-track passport to the White House (not that any of these things are necessarily a bad thing!)
The single most important thing that my students felt that they need to succeed and make a positive difference in the world was the ability to be kind to one another.
We talked as a class about why kindness can be hard to learn and ‘do’ sometimes: “Sometimes, it’s just easier to be mean because it gets things done quicker” and “being kind is hard when you don’t understand the other person – their culture, their ideas, or their interests”, according to my students. We talked honestly about inequality: where they experienced it, how, and why. It got pretty ugly. (Cue tears, anger, and reconciliatory hugs). Finally, we asked: “Is kindness enough?” Well, no. It’s not enough if we are going to make a real profound difference, because there is a difference between being kind for the sake of being kind or to look good and in understanding when someone else is having a hard time so that you know how best to help them with kindness (woah, I think my kiddos just articulated their own version of Empathy Design). In short, we have to start from a place of kindness and empathy in order to achieve greater things.
We really began to grapple with vision in a way that I’d never been able to articulate for or with my students before. Here we were, tearing apart all those motivational posters about growth mindset and academic excellence and talking about something that really mattered to them: knowing how, and having the right skills to be kind when our complex, messy, modern world gets tough.
So, what’s the greatest work I can do to serve my students’ need right now?
My vision for my students continues to evolve as we keep on having what we’ve come to call “meaty but mighty” conversations. In the meantime, the way I see my role in bringing our vision to action, translated into small, practical steps for us in the classroom, is:
1. Showing my kids unconditional love and creating a safe space for them to feel and spread kindness: modelling the type of citizens I hope for my students to be, and giving them the space and opportunity to be kind is so important. This may sound obvious, but if you’ve ever taught or been a parent, you’ll know that sometimes the pressure of meeting targets, getting things done, or doing what the curriculum demands can get in the way of simply being kind and empathetic about your kids’ needs. One small thing our class has committed to is to develop kinder habits so that it becomes a daily practice. We are beginning by celebrating Random Acts of Kindness Week, this week! We’ve also made it a project to write a kind note to every single member of our class, from every single one of their peers to help build self-esteem and promote mental wellbeing.
2. Teaching tolerance: modelling what it means to be accepting of differences and giving my students the opportunities to experience what it means to be a global citizen. From now on I will try to make connecting my kids to the things that they care about a priority in our classroom, so that they develop the understanding and the skills to make positive changes in their local and global communities. Storytelling is a really powerful way to teach tolerance and promote empathy. This term I am going to make as many of these books as possible available in our class library for kids to read and to open discussions about what it’s like to be a refugee.
3. Modelling and cultivating empathy: the single most important thing for me this year has been working on developing a mindset that seeks first to understand before being understood, so that I can understand my students’ needs better and create a culture whereby honesty and being empathetic is a natural choice. Here’s a great short video on why teaching empathy is difficult but essential to equip our young people to be “successful actors in a complicated world”.
If you’d like to explore more ways to build kindness in your classroom, here are a few great resources:
- The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have some great resources for educators.
- The Book Trust have some great suggestions for literature that promotes kindness, compassion and empathy.
- This Pinterest page provides lots of inspiration for classroom displays, resources and activities that support children to practice kindness.
- Kid President is my first port of call when it comes to breaking down kindness for the kids. He’s also a total dude.
So, all this considered, what does my vision for my pupils look like now?
The truth is that it’s ever-changing. I remember talking to Arlene Casimir-Siar when I and a group of Teach First ambassadors visited her class at KIPP Believe in New Orleans, and she told me that she keeps her vision in her pocket at all times, ready to adapt, adjust and review it with her kids and the community she serves. Arlene’s class vision was everywhere we looked when we visited her classroom: on the walls, in the tasks she set her pupils, in the discussions she raised with them, and most importantly, in the life path that her kids were writing for themselves. From now on, I’m taking a leaf out of Arlene’s book. Our class vision is going to be in my pocket at all times and pinned proudly to the classroom wall, open to questioning, scrutiny, and challenge from those who shaped it in the first place: my wonderful kids.