(trying to understand how schools perceive their role in “teaching” to be kind)
Looking for firsthand insights, I asked a head teacher if they had thought about consciously inculcating the so called ‘finer qualities’ in children. To say the least, her response unsettled me.
According to her, qualities such as kindness, compassion, altruism, generosity, fairness, charity… are dealt with in the moral science class. She admitted that as a teacher of mathematics, she never touched on it in her class. In the same breath, she also admitted that the children in her school are very kind, loving, courteous, concerned about their peers and extremely cooperative with one another. I know this for a fact for I ‘taught’ at the school a long time ago; I still visit it once in a while, and interact with some of the teachers.
This is a CBSE school in a semi-rural setting with an average teacher-pupil ratio of 1:30; it has adopted a policy of adhering to the RTE norms of admitting deserving children from the neighbourhood. Most importantly, I have yet to meet a kinder soul than the head teacher.
The reason for such detailing is to draw home the point that in spite of well-qualified staff, good infrastructure, a fair mixture of students from all socio-cultural backgrounds, and a competent head teacher embodying the right values, I found the head teacher’s response to my query wanting by a good measure.
It is unsettling to realize that even though in practice the members of the school are courteous, kind, and concerned, there is a notional idea of dependence on a moral science class for their didactic source. And this is by no means unique, it is the dominant thinking! Can these important traits so necessary for peace and brotherhood be taught in an assigned period of the class time-table? Engaging with stories, parables, folktales, biographies, etc., in a particular class may have its uses, but is such limited exposure adequate? In the above case, I am inclined to totally disagree. From what I have seen and experienced, it is the unstated but consistently practiced trait of the head teacher that has over the years had its ineffaceable influence on everyone who comes in contact with her (and her team of teachers and staff). A calm and composed personality, kindness is lived naturally; percolating to the youngest on campus.
On the flip side many of these qualities that we believe to be desirable in humans can prove to be problematic at times in real life. Kindness can be misconstrued, speaking the truth may lead to being a target of vengeance, goodness be mistaken for weakness, courtesy be seen as making inappropriate advances, etc. Such situations may work as double-edged swords; putting us through a mental variance of ‘to act or not to act, to be or not to be’. At such times we may come across as distinctly apathetic.
For instance, every once in a while a teacher may face a dilemma when a situation demands she show kindness, concern and compassion at the cost of being seen as practicing favouritsm. Such situations can be discomfiting as the mind is faced with a conflict of interest. On the one hand, there may be a genuine urge to be fair, compassionate or to respond to compulsions of conditioned social altruist behavioural norms. On the other, one’s own situation, circumstance, need, constraints, memory of a previous unpleasant experience in a similar situation, etc. So one may overtly appear to be unkind, apathetic, indifferent… The overt behaviour can easily lead to being judged, categorized as such; perceived or labeled such and such. This may lead to being perceived as unfair. Does one then pass this on to the moral science teacher to deal with, or does one suspend the academic session to examine the situation along with the class?
The more important concern however is: why are fewer and fewer people (including children) around us seen with these traits today? Have such traits lost their relevance in our life? Is altruism a part of the human DNA or an acquired trait? If acquired, where from and how?
From an observation of the everyday events that unfold around us, it may be not too off the mark to conclude that humans are by and large a violent, selfish, self-centered, irresponsible, disrespectful, immoral, unethical, myopic-minded species. The newspapers and television – presently the all pervasive dominant source of information – have little else to convey other than the rabble-rousing implausible. Is it that our altruistic tendencies are so common that they do not merit attention or mention? Going by the news media one might find it difficult to believe that humans are, to a considerable extent, predisposed to acts of kindness, generosity, feelings of empathy, brotherhood. Scientific studies have established that altruism and traits of kindness may very much be a part of the human genetic material. A saving grace, to be honest!
Many studies have also established that kind behaviour can be induced and inculcated from early childhood with subtle indications of something as simple as a poster or photograph depicting acts of kindness, friendship, empathy, lending a helping hand, etc. Teaching pro-social behaviour, researchers assert, is more easy than imagined. Children learn from observation, imitation, and experience. As social beings the urge for acceptance is so strong that children learn very quickly that they make more friends by being kind and helpful than by being mean or selfish. Wanting to be part of the adult world at the earliest, they look up for acceptable behavioural cues in older siblings, friends, parents, teachers, relatives and not the least the multiple media and communication tools that are part of their everyday reality.
Today as the case stands, most adults in a child’s life are living high pressured lives that they may not be the best role models of simple courtesies. So where are the living lessons for children? Showing kindness, being courteous can be as simple as making eye contact, exchanging a smile, a gentle pat of appreciation, acknowledging a salutary greeting. Do we have the time or inclination for living it? The added burden of inculcating these traits naturally, then, falls on the school environment. Luckily for children, the team of teaching and non teaching staff can find limitless opportunities in their daily contact with children to ‘live’ kindness. Children when appreciated for their altruistic acts thrive on positive feedback. A simple act of ‘lived’ kindness is as permanent as indelible ink. Many schools today have devised special mechanisms, didactic tools, dedicated projects, activities that can inculcate such traits.
How many schools can claim that their teachers are kind people foremost? And how many can claim that their children do not push one another at the sound of the end of the school day bell to be the first to get out of class, be the first to get into the school bus, show patience for the last one to finish a math sum, allow a weaker companion to take the stairs first, pick a fallen book for another, give up one’s turn, lend one’s notes to an absentee? Not many.
I have to also admit to having come across many schools where to a large extent all these ‘unusual’ acts are part of everyday school life. Without exception these schools have many among the staff who are kind and courteous people; unassuming, hardworking, living what they believe in; walking the talk; not waiting for the weekly moral science class to preach the practice – living kindness as an intrinsic part of everyday life. As Aesop said a very long time ago, No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
The author is an independent researcher associated with Taleemnet an endeavour of Multiworld India (www.multiworldindia.org). She is also the author of Our Land Our Life: a curriculum for children of rural communities in India and Tending a Schoolyard Garden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.