“How’s your class going, Lan?” – I started chatting as we’re sitting in a small ramen shop.
Lan slurped the ramen, eyes spacing out the window and wandering in a midst of thoughts. After a bite or two, she seemed to have found a story to illustrate what she was thinking.
“I have this one student in my Foundation Math 2000,” she said. “His perfectionism can turn mistakes into tears.”
Lan continued the story without me prompting any further questions. Her teacher’s instinct has taught her how to specify broad curiosities. She works with those every day. Students asks her why the homework was so difficult. Parents asks her how their kids were doing. Other colleagues, like me, asks her how classes were going. Lan doesn’t trust in the accuracy of one-word answers like “Ok” or “Fine”. She knows they are just other ways of saying “I don’t know.” Instead, she often responds with more specific questions, by which she can share the responsibility of finding the answers with others.
“That little boy,” Lan continued about her little perfectionist, “he has been crying in class over his own mistakes several times. I even had a long conversation with his mom about that issue.”
The mom told Lan that since she and her husband travelled for work, they’d left the kid at his grandparents’ house for several years before picking him up. Lack of intimate care and love made him lonely and yearn for attention more than others. He withdrew himself from friend groups at school and always sought for personal attention. After talking to his mom, Lan understood more about her student, but to draw out a solution for his problem, she said that she needed some time.
At E2, Lan’s learned that it took more than methods and logic to teach and manage a classroom. It required empathy. She knew it well that she could never fully understand what the kid was going through because it was his experience and his alone. And that was hard because all he wanted was for people to understand and feel what he was feeling, without having to explain it in detail.
One day in class, the boy couldn’t finish his assignment on time and had his like icon – which Lan used to mark each student’s improvement – taken away. He sobbed for a good fifteen minutes. It wasn’t the first time, and Lan felt like her heart would explode watching the kid suffer his failure. She came closer to the boy, sat down next to him and gently said.
“You can cry as long as you want. When you’re done, let’s talk.”
When the sob slacked, Lan looked into his eyes and asked. “I know you’re sad, but if you continue to cry like that, would you be able to finish your assignment?”
Silence swept in.
“If you don’t finish the assignment, would you get the like icon?” Lan continued.
“No,” the boy replied; his voice was little more than a murmur.
“Crying won’t help you improve and won’t fix your problems. From now on, instead of crying over a mistake, why don’t you just work harder next time?” Lan said. “I just want you to know that you’re a good student. And I don’t judge you based on comparison with others. I look at your own progress. You climbing higher day by day is what makes me happy, not you passing others.”
The boy, still catching breath after the sob, hesitantly lifted up his hands to sweep away some tears sticking on his cheeks.
“Now, do you want to cry some more or work on your assignment?” Lan asked, hoping for some cooperation.
“Work on my assignment.” The boy replied.
Lan paused the story and picked up her chopsticks. Savoring both the ramen and her memory, she let out a deep sigh.
“I don’t know if he absorbed all my words, but he’s been calmer lately.” She said. “I just want him to know that I understand and care for him.”
Lan wanted her students to always know that they are loved. The things they’ve seen, the lessons they’ve learned, and even the mistakes they’ve made help shape who they are. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to just be as long as they learn something. Lan believed it is her responsibility to show them how to learn from being themselves.
Empathy is feeling with someone else. It’s reminding people that they aren’t alone. As a teacher, Lan might not be able to physically be there for her students or respond to their questions day by day, but whenever in class, she feels and walks with them on every step.
“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Brene Brown.
At an after school learning center, finding time to cultivate the students’ characters can be a luxury. However, we cannot deny the fact that our classrooms also provide a social structure that the child encounters and an excellent opportunity for character-building.
Classroom is not just about learning concepts; it is also a place where a foundation can be built for becoming upstanding person. We should set a tone of respect, honesty and genuine kindness for all students. Whether they like it or not, teachers are role models for students and can provide examples of good characters every day in the classroom. Students notice what teachers, do, say, tolerate, and how they handle challenges.
However, character building can also be done proactively through planned actions and activities within the classroom. These classroom activities will encourage students to develop and adopt quality ethical principles and behaviors that can last far beyond the classroom.
I came across many blogs that share their methods of building characters for students. Let me share with you five ways that we can apply in our classroom at E2:
Focusing on the pillars of character
Some people say that character can be measured by what one would do if no one were looking. True character is instilled at a deep level so that positive behavior is automatic. The Josephson Institute of Ethics defines the main pillars of character to include trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, caring, fairness and citizenship. Besides, to refine the list, we should also teach kids about courage, diligence, and integrity.
One teacher suggests that we can choose one pillar to highlight at a time. Create an interactive collage on a bulletin board in the classroom, for example. Focusing on one pillar per month is a great way to raise awareness of the character traits they can strive to build in themselves. We can also choose books and lesson materials that embody the trait to implement into the lessons. Assign creative writing projects on the topic, encouraging students to explore it. How would they define trustworthiness, respect, or integrity?
Discussing the rules
It is our responsibility as teachers to set appropriate rules for classroom behavior. Be clear and specific about the ground rules. Specify what you expect to see from your students, and what is unacceptable. Instead of enforcing the rules, I’ve learned that discussing them with the students, as well as the character traits that are embodied and built by each rule help creating a more positive environment for the classroom. And, remember that we should always hold ourselves up to the standards that we set out. Complete your own work on time, be neat and punctual, and always show respect for others.
Complete your own work on time, be neat and punctual, and always show respect for others. Try and stay positive; praise students who exhibit good behavior and good character. Make them positive role models for the class. You can employ a reward system for good behavior such as points or gold stars. Credits earned could be exchanged for classroom privileges.
Setting up role models
Students tends to choose role models for themselves whether they realize it or not. We should make an effort to point out positive character role models in history, literature, science and the arts. Deliberately teach about people that your students can emulate. Ask students to describe, assess and match the traits and behaviors of these people or commendable characters within a fiction story. They could even dramatize some of the story elements or change them to allow a character to make better choices. Talk about the behavior of current world leaders, sports figures and celebrities as well. Ask students if a person’s words match their actions. Discuss how life is improved with good character traits.
Centering the value of respect
Your classroom should be firmly established on a foundation of respect. Self-respect and respect for others are the basis of all other positive character traits. Negativity and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and met with appropriate consequences. Create anti-bullying campaigns and extol the virtues of treating all classmates with respect and dignity.
Building a community
As a teacher, no matter how chaotic our classroom might get, we should make sure that all students are included in activities. Besides, we should focus on implementing the “random acts of kindness” concept and reward students when they demonstrate it.
Dear my student,
I know you’ve been stressed out lately with all the expectations weighing on your shoulders. They are so heavy that you seem to have forgotten the purpose of your learning when you showed up to our tutoring sessions. The purpose that I’m talking about here is not about completing all the worksheets or the lessons as planned. Those things are important because they help us measure our learning progress, they themselves are not our goals.
You might ask me again, what the purpose of learning is anyway. Is it the goal that we set together when we started our tutoring course? Is it to pass the entrance exam to an international school as your mom wanted? Is it to study abroad? How far and high should a dream or an expectation be to become a purpose? All of these questions, I’d like to reflect on them with you through this learning journey of mine.
Let’s take it back to the time when I was still in ninth-grade. It was a month before the high school entrance exam. Flipping through pages of math textbook, I yawned and put my head down on the desk. I could hear the old ceiling fan squeaking. I heard footsteps draw closer from the stairs. My mom came into the room with a glass of hot milk. She put the glass on my desk and patted my back. I sat up straight, starring tiredly at the textbook. I turned to the next page and kept working. My mom sat down on the bed behind me. She turned on the television and scanned through the channels, all in English. No local channels were broadcast after midnight. I looked at the clock, it was already 2 o’clock in the morning.
In Vietnam, the high school entrance exam was one of the most important gateways to the future. The school system was set up to prepare students for these exams. A month before the exam, students studied their days away; teachers stayed in school until late at night, and parents prayed with all their heart for the best results, meaning for their kids to get in the most prestigious schools. The day of the exams was marked on the calendar and taken as seriously as a sacred time. Security systems were set up from street corners to exam locations. Police were stationed on all of the main streets in the city. The roads were clear of heavy traffic. The whole nation came to a halt and carefully watched us like a parent watching a child taking his first step in life.
Indeed, the first step of our future started with the exam – one single set of tests that determined a fifteen-year-old’s future. Those who scored well were welcomed into the best schools, could sit in the most competitive classes and listen to lectures from the most experienced teachers. Those who scored not as high had to attend lesser high schools or no high schools at all, unless their families could afford to send them to private schools, which ranked lower than public schools academically.
Not only did the ability to reach the standard scores in the exams depended on one’s hard work, it also depended on one’s luck. If you had any religious belief, you should pray for the two most important things during that time – first was for the exam to go as smoothly as it could, and second was for the high schools not to raise up last year’s standard scores. If one of these two things happened, your hard work would be counted for nothing. I was lucky enough to pass the test with a set of scores that can get me to a good public high schools. Little did I know, getting into a better school also meant having more late nights of studying and preparing for the next big gateway – the university entrance exams.
In my senior year of high school, with the university entrance exams waiting ahead, and my future once again depended on another one-shot kind of test and hanging on another thread of luck. I decided to take a new path and study abroad. The lessons of commitment and hope that I’ve learned from that system was tremendously important. But I wanted to break out, to have choices, to be different and to learn. I wanted an education that would allow me to ask questions.
I decided to study abroad. In my college years, far away from home and my comfort zone of unchanged cultures and norms, I discovered my passion and purpose for my learning journey. One time, in our Bible class, the professor introduced us to the new idea of education: the teacher’s job was to offer his/her knowledge as a gift rather than imposing it as an authority. It was up to each student to decide the value of the gift and if he/she wanted to accept it. From the lecture, I could see an ideal education system that sets students up for going forward and further into the world of knowledge rather than fighting for success and against failure.
Then, I knew that the purpose of my learning journey was to unwrap every gift given to me on this journey. Now, as a teacher, I’ve got still a long way to go and a lot more gifts to unwrap. Every hour that I plan my lesson and every student that I interact with is a gift of inspiration. Although it isn’t easy most of the time, just thinking of what I can learn from you and our time in class keeps me working hard every day.
To solve the problem of preventing our stress from taking over the classroom, I want to let you know that there will always be a gift that I prepare wholeheartedly for you in each lesson. Whenever you come to class, be curious, be excited to unwrap it.