Two steps forward, One step back
Contributed by Zoë Shipley
When I began my first year as an AmeriCorps member at a low-income middle school in Oregon, I knew I wanted to make a positive impact, but I wasn’t sure how. When I heard about another member starting a group that focused on being kind to one another, I happily stole her idea and created my very own Kindness Crew. As an avid Free Hugger, I knew I loved performing random acts of kindness and I figured that creating an after school Kindness Crew would give me a chance to do even more RAKs (Random Acts of Kindness), while showing students how rewarding and fun spreading kindness can be!
I spent weeks planning out a curriculum, looking up various uplifting videos, and gathering ideas for RAKs we could do around the school. When the class started, I had a small group of wonderful students who were very excited to get going. We wrote in gratitude journals each week, shared stories of kindness, performed RAKS, and came up with ideas for how else to spread the love. I was delighted with what we were doing and was certain that I was changing lives and making a difference.
A few weeks in, I learned from one of the students that she was being bullied by a group of girls, one of whom was in my Kindness Crew. I was shocked! Naively, I had assumed that coming to a 1.5-hour class once a week and doing nice things for others would completely eradicate any chance of any of my students ever being mean to anyone again! I was supposed to be transforming them into compassionate young people who stood up for each other and said nice things! This was definitely a reality check.
What I realized from this early experience - and from many subsequent experiences that left me wondering if I was really making a positive impact - was that I needed to be patient. It’s easy to start these kinds of programs with all sorts of idealistic notions and to be frustrated when they don’t immediately turn out the way we want them to. But change takes time and gradually occurs from the accumulation of many small, often unnoticeable changes.
Despite my own perceived failure after those first few weeks of Kindness Crew, I continued the class and did my best to be a positive and kind role model for these kids. I designed a Kindness Crew mascot, the Kindosaurus, and ordered t-shirts for our group, strengthening our identity and making us more visible to the rest of the school. We decorated kindness-themed buttons and distributed them to students at lunchtime. We took field trips to local nonprofits we had raised money for and learned about issues facing the community. We decorated bookmarks with kind sayings and left them in random books around the library.
A year and a half later, I’ve got many teachers and other students sporting our now iconic Kindosaurus shirts in support of our group and our mission. People throughout the school recognize our “brand” and staff have started assigning random acts of kindness as a consequence for bad behavior. The entire school recently participated in the Great Kindness Challenge of 2015, which aims to create a culture of kindness at schools by providing ideas for RAKs and encouraging all students to perform as many as possible throughout the week.
Since my first rude awakening, I’ve also gathered a small collection of what I consider to be student success stories. One student in particular, was quite a handful when he first joined my class. I talked with him after almost every class and asked him to seriously consider whether he really wanted to participate in a positive way. He remained in the class and continued to take small steps in the right direction. One day, I found him writing on his knuckles with permanent marker - when he showed it to me, he had spelled out “LOVE IS LIFE”. I wouldn’t say that he has make a complete turn around - just the other day, he and another boy were caught passing around a note that said “Personal Ass Licker” (is that really the kind of insult kids come up with these days!?). He still has days when he comes to school angry and unhappy and he rarely replies when I smile and say hi to him in the hallways. But I have seen him perform small acts of kindness more and more often and I know that on some level, his participation in Kindness Crew is making a difference. So I continue showering him with the love and kindness I know he so desperately needs and I do what I can to provide a positive adult relationship and role model in his life.
As teachers, we rarely get to see the long-term impacts, either good or bad, that we have on students. We do the best we can and hope we are sending them off to the next teacher a little bit better than when we found them. And as far as changing the entire culture of our school to one of kindness and compassion, we have a long way to go. But the short-term changes I have seen both in the school wide atmosphere and in individual students has been tangible. Due to the nature of my position, I will be moving on after the end of this school year and it breaks my heart to think of leaving my beloved Kindness Crew in the hands of the new member. But I am grateful for the lessons I have learned from my experience here and believe that if we continue putting our positive energy and love out into the universe, it will come back to us in one form or another. Good things are coming.
Zoë is a Portland native who grew up at the Oregon Zoo. She enjoys hoola hoops, trampolines, climbing, yoga, chocolate, traveling, and people and music of all kinds. Her favourite weather is hot and sunny and her favourite animal is the Steller Sea Lion. On the weekends, you can find her hiking, playing board games, making music, and enjoying potluck dinners with friends.