Speak Less, Act Right

The first time I read these words by a Holocaust survivor, they haunted me. “My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human.” To fulfill that request, our actions matter far more than our words.

Nerdiest moment of my teaching career: Biking to work past waving students one morning and having this thought flit unbidden through my mind: “Man, it’s a good thing I’m wearing this helmet to model bike safety for these impressionable young students.”

Oy.

While these schoolmarmish sentiments might not play well when chatting up a potential date at the bar, an article in Sunday’s New York Times confirms that my premise was sound: Kids learn a lot more from what we do than what we say.

The article, titled “Raising A Moral Child,” focused on how to impart traits like generosity and compassion. In an illuminating study, children watched a “teacher figure” play a game in which the adult could either keep her/his tokens or give them to someone in poverty. Some of the adults went on to preach the value of giving, others the value of taking, while still others said nothing. Kids then played the token game.

The result was striking. The mini-sermon on generosity vs. selfishness had no effect. But “when the adult acted generously, the students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not,” donating 85% more than the average.

The long-term effects were even more remarkable. Two months later, when the kids played the game again, “The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything.”

The conclusion was clear: “Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.”

What are the implications for our teaching? Here are three of mine; I’d love to hear yours.

 

1. We need to stop talking so much.

If you graphed the amount of time I spent talking each day and how effective I felt as a teacher, you’d see an inverse correlation. The more I talked, the less the students learned.

The reason is simple. Time is a precious commodity, the hours experienced equally by teachers and students. Yet teachers have lopsided control over how this commodity is doled out.

Imagine an emir choosing to give himself and his royal family 65% of his small nation’s GDP, while graciously allowing the rest of the populace to scrabble for the remaining 35%. We decide how much we talk—and as a result, how little time is left for our students to talk, write, build, create, and work in groups.

Conversations are different. When I’m doing a one-on-one writing conference, leading a guided reading session, or checking in with a group as they modify their design for a skyscraper built of straws, the limited time I talk contributes directly to the students’ learning.

But whole-class filibusters are a dangerous temptation. “I have so much wisdom to offer these impressionable young minds! Such a wealth of life experience to impart!”

What about their own life experiences? What about their wisdom?

When I talk less, I listen more. The class becomes more about the students’ ideas than mine. The kids think more as a result.

 

2. Students see, students do.

My students notice when, in exceptionally frustrating moments, I take a deep breath before replying in a tone of controlled calm. For kids who have trouble controlling their own anger, this is a useful technique they can adopt. It lets them keep calm and carry on, rather than raising their voice or smacking whoever frustrates them.

The Times article made a critical distinction between guilt (feeling bad about an action) and shame (feeling bad about yourself.) “When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right.”

I model this about once a week, when I feel guilt about losing my temper with a student. I seek that child out—sometimes a few minutes later, sometimes the next day—and apologize.

It’s a simple apology: “Carlos, I shouldn’t have gotten impatient with you earlier. I’m sorry I raised my voice.”

The kids are always surprised—not just the child I apologize to, who usually seems to feel an increased sense of self-worth that I respected her/him enough to apologize—but the kids who overhear the apology. It models an important lesson: It’s OK to make mistakes, even as an adult. But you need to try to fix the mistake afterwards, even if it hurts your ego to do it.

 

3. We need to teach this stuff.

The article pointed out that our school system is fixated on academic success, yet “Success is not the Number 1 priority for most parents. We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate, and helpful.”

I don’t know what the world will look like when my six-year old daughter graduates college in the year 2030. Google will probably seem as outdated as AOL dial-up, iPhones clunky as cassette tapes. Jobs will exist that haven’t been created yet.

But whatever career my daughter chooses, she will need to collaborate, communicate, and use her ingenuity to solve complicated problems. Whatever life she chooses, she will need to resolve conflicts peacefully, listen to others’ ideas, and give generously of her time and talents.

The intersections between academic content and the complex human beings in our classes can be overwhelming in itself. Expanding the scope of abilities we nurture in students to include traits like generosity, compassion, and kindness can seem overly ambitious, even an over-reach into realms best left to parents and religion.

But we teach whole human beings. There’s a reason that so many critical academic disciplines are called collectively “The Humanities.” Considering a perspective different from your own is critical to developing a nuanced argument. Working as a team on an engineering challenge requires compromise and an ability to resolve conflicts.

Parents care whether their children are learning to read, write, and do math in our class. But they also care about whether their children are being kind to the other kids. They care about whether they’re learning to be good listeners, to resolve their conflicts peacefully, to sometimes put others’ needs above their own.

Most teachers, too, believe we have a responsibility to help our students become caring human beings as well as capable thinkers. The first time I read these words by a Holocaust survivor, they haunted me:

“My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human.”

 

As a member of that tribe of parents who are also teachers, I’m always intrigued by the connections between parenting and teaching. As a parent, I fundamentally want two things for my daughter and son: I want them to be happy, and I want them to be good. Everything else—including the sum total of the academic content they learn in school—is a means to those ends.

I want the same two things for the students I teach. True, I want them to reason like mathematicians, to approach the world with the inquiry of scientists, to express their convictions and experiences in writing. But ultimately I want them to lead fulfilling lives, whatever career they choose, and to become caring and generous human beings.

The Times article concluded with the idea that “Character causes actions, but action also shapes character.” Our students might remember a few things we tell them, but they will almost certainly remember our actions. They will often follow our example, and their character will take shape as a result.

So we walk the walk. We show our students that we read for pleasure. We think mathematically to figure out real-life problems. We write our convictions and experiences, then revise that writing to make it stronger.

We take a deep breath when we’re angry. We listen more than we talk. We apologize when we make mistakes. And we always, always wear a nerdy helmet when biking to work.

Our students know the truth a friend once told me: “If you want to know what someone believes, don’t ask them. Look at how they spend their time, every hour of each day. That’s what they believe.”

We are what we do. No pressure, right?

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