Building Empathy From the Start: A New First Day Tradition?

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I’m not one for speeches. It’s been a really long time since I stood at the front of my classroom and lectured for longer than 5 minutes. My classroom is perpetually involved in an ongoing conversation.

Yet, I recently attended a Kevin Honeycutt session titled “Chicken Glasses.” Yes, these are an actual product, but, as you might guess, they were the hook, not the subject of our discussion. What we discussed was bullying, meanness, and empathy.

Honeycutt described how his son was bullied, and how he observed kids hurting other kids instinctively in schools. His answer? We need to build character education intentionally into our educational system. We need to have explicit conversations with students about the consequences of behaviors that isolate, belittle, and harm their fellow students. We need to name bullying and call it out of the darkness where it thrives. As teachers, we have a hugely important role in protecting “the least of these.”

Although I work hard to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect, safety, and kindness in my classroom, I had never explicitly set expectations for how my students should treat each other. Because I teach high school, I felt like this was understood and would only address it if those unspoken expectations of respect and kindness were not met. However, Honeycutt’s challenge had me mulling about ways I could be more intentional to address, prevent, and stop bullying among my students this year.

The next day in the car, I dictated the following into my iPhone. This message will open our school year, and establish the norms of my classroom:

In this class we are all equal. Anyone can write a brilliant poem that moves us to tears. Anyone can share a personal story that inspires us to change the world. Anyone can ask a question that makes us pause and re-examine everything we we thought we knew. So this is a safe place. No matter who you hang out with outside of this room, no matter how much money your parents make, no matter where you go on vacation, no matter what your GPA is, no matter what kind of music you listen to: you are as valuable as the person beside you. You have infinite potential to become whoever you want to be, yet you are inherently valuable because of who you are right now.

So I want you to know that I expect kindness from each one of you. I expect you to prioritize empathy in your interactions with each other. When we mess up, I expect you to take ownership and sincerely apologize. 

I cannot force you to be a kind person–the only person any of us can change is ourselves. But I can hold up mirrors and remind you of your potential. I can ask you to define who you want to be, and then hold you accountable for becoming that person. I can remind you of who your parents believe you are and I can remind you that you can impact this world positively. It is my job to hold you accountable for becoming the best version of yourself. I will accept no side glances, no eye rolls about another’s appearance or ideas, no exclusionary body language, and no terms that teardown another person.

We are all a complex mix of insecurities fears hopes dreams and strength. We will all disappoint ourselves and each other at some point. But we will all hold ourselves to a standard of kindness and respect. We will return to this standard even when we fall off the path.

I want you to know how I see you. I see you first as a human being with unlimited potential to do great things. I see you secondly as a learner with a curiosity about the world. Next as a reader and writer, a communicator with ideas that should be shared for others to hear, see, and understand. Finally, I see you as an English student. This is the priority structure. I care about your mental, physical, and emotional health first. Your intellectual growth and your curiosity next and finally your ability to demonstrate important communication skills identified by learning standards. This is what is important for me, and this is how I will make decisions in our classroom. You matter more to me than a grade, and our classroom culture will be steeped in kindness. No one should feel alone here, and all should be accepted.

I hope you help me create this culture because I certainly cannot do it alone. 

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