The Kindness Coffee Table [and six other ways to save your students]

I’ve been a teacher for 18 years. I have taught in seven school districts and six states. Because my husband is a pastor, I’ve had the humbling opportunity to meet thousands of students from multiple economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. I’ve taught in rural, suburban, and urban environments.

One thing I know to be true, however, about teaching ALL students:

life > school

For those of you ill equipped (like me) with math, that equation means life IS GREATER THAN and HAS MORE IMPORTANCE THAN school.

Although I am a teacher and I value education, I also see that if we can’t take care of life first, then school doesn’t even come as a close second to some – even most – kids. If you’re barely awake because you drove your mom home from the bar (illegally) at 4 a.m., school is not the first thing on your brain. If dad is currently in chemo while we’re taking a vocabulary quiz, school is not on the brain. If your locker neighbor is constantly calling you trash between every class period, school is not on the brain.

The bottom line in my classroom is I must do everything I can to make it a safe place. Because out of that safety comes willingness to risk, trust, and know that opinions are valued and heard. That can often change the whole game in the classroom.

A lot of bloggers I enjoy reading are posting about “What’s saving their lives right now”. A couple I love are Teaching Sam & Scout and Modern Mrs. Darcy. I decided I would write about what I’m attempting to do to save my students right now.

Here are a few of the strategies I’ve used to attempt to establish that safe place in my classroom. Every school is different because different places require different strategies, so I haven’t used them all in the same place. I know I haven’t always gotten it right – and I’m sure I’ve missed it before. But kids are kids – whether they are gang members or state bound athletes, everywhere I’ve been they consistently want to be heard and valued. They all suffer pain – some of them just hide it better.

Here are just a few ideas that might work with your own students:

  • Peanut butter jelly time: I have found that sometimes, although parents might have the means to supply students with lunch money, they may not actually give them any. So kids may not be on the free and reduced lunch program but may still be without food. At one school district, I would announce to my students that if they “forgot” their lunch, I would always be stocked with peanut butter, jelly, and bread. More often than not, a student would pop in during lunch to make a sandwich and we’d have a conversation. life > school. We all know how hard it is to concentrate when your stomach is growling.
  • High fives out da door: My students aren’t allowed to leave my classroom without a high five. In fact, after a couple days in my classroom, it just becomes commonplace not to leave the room without a high five. That personal touch means something to both of us. I also get to look into their eyes and make assessments as to where they are emotionally. There have been many times when I’ve called a student back to “check in” and see what’s going on only to find out something personal that will help me be a better teacher to that student in the future. I have a whole blog about brain breaks and “touches” with handouts here.
  • There’s no place like home: I decorate my high school classroom to feel like home. I need it as much as they do. We have tables instead of desks, black and red pennants, quotes on every wall…some say it is over the top for a HS classroom. I disagree. I want kids to feel safe and comfortable and to know I care about the space they’ll spend time in every day. I didn’t always do this – it took several years to figure it out – but when I feel comfortable, so do they. Check out my YouTube vlog about how to set up a classroom environment here!
  • Drive by encouragements: Do you have ten minutes, a roll of masking tape, and Sharpies? This activity is beloved by ALL my students. We write compliments and stick them on everyone’s backs. Want to try? Check out the whole post with instructions here.
  • Kindness Coffee Table: This year I have seniors, and they are just itching to be adults. I have a coffee table, a coffee maker, a hot water heater, and a box of coffee “things”. As long as kids bring their own mug (we leave mugs on the coffee table) and contribute to the coffee cause (coffee, tea, creamer, sugar), they can have coffee every day! It contributes to the atmosphere, helps the students feel ownership, and they can feel like they are “adulting”.
  • #thirdpartycompliments and S/Os: It’s worth your time to take 2-3 minutes every once in awhile and ask kids to talk about others behind their backs…in a positive way. Whether it be about teachers, students, or shouting out something someone did in the classroom, regular positive affirmation changes the atmosphere of a room. Here’s a video you can use to explain #thirdpartycompliments to your class.
  • Let them lead: Letting students “own” part of the class is a great way to help them feel safe in the classroom. Trusting them to lead is important. Recently, I’ve started letting two students start my classes from Tuesday to Friday every week. They do a current event, talk about a TED talk, and important for seniors, do show and tell about their college choices and future lives. The first five minutes belong to them and they are able to exhibit some leadership skills that prepare them for the future.

In no way have I “arrived” as a teacher. I am still learning from my students, administrators, and fellow teachers every day. But on my own learning journey I’ve figured out that kindness and being intentional to create a safe space can go a long way in encouraging students to WANT to learn. And if there’s something I can try to make their learning experience better and more relevant, my answer is always “YES”!

Please feel free to LINK UP your own post or comment about strategies that save your students. And if you’re not a teacher, maybe post a comment about something successful you’ve seen a teacher do!  I’d love to read more ideas and comments, as well as blogs, that help me better as a teacher!