The unexpected power of kindness

At the beginning of this school year I was in the cafeteria before school when I saw a little kindergarten boy sitting by himself, crying.  I went over and asked him what was wrong, and he told me between sobs that he missed his big sister. So together we went and found his sister with the fourth graders in the auditorium.  He got to give her one more hug before the bell rang to start the school day.

6 or 7 months have passed, but every time I see this child he says, “Thank you for taking me to my sister!”  In between I forget all about it, then each time he thanks me out of the blue it reminds me what happened and how much those five minutes meant to him.

This morning I saw the same child and he thanked me again.  Just a half hour later I was reading an article about work being done in Watauga County to build more compassionate school cultures with the goal of helping kids deal with trauma.  The article cited a Harvard study which found that one of the most important factors in offsetting trauma and building resilience in children is a positive relationship with a consistent, caring adult.  

The purpose of this post is not to brag but to point out that often we don’t realize how impactful our small acts of kindness might be on others.  Awareness of that impact can help us be more intentional about building the compassionate cultures that we need in our schools.


Surprise ending to my hate mail saga


Last week when my article about turning hate mail into a teachable moment for my students was published by the Washington Post, I sent a link to the individual who had initially contacted me.  I included a brief message which said only, “You’ll be glad to see that your email ended up doing some good.”

Considering the caustic beginning to our communication, I expected either more insults or perhaps silence.  Imagine my surprise when I received this reply instead:

Hi Justin,

I’m honestly thrilled. Thank you for sharing. That’s good stuff and the more I learn about you and your efforts, the more I wish we had more folks like you that take the time and effort to have this kind of dialogue.

Your students are spot on. I apologize for the insults and my email was obviously in haste and over emotional.

I respect what you do and even though I doubt we’ll agree on this issue (I still think the bad guys will avoid schools in which they fear a salty armed forces veteran is on duty) I greatly appreciate your point of view.

My sincerely apologies for the insults, you deserve better for what you do for the community.

I hope you and your wonderful and thoughtful students forgive me!

Thank you.


It appears that Kevin took the last piece of student advice he read to heart:

“He can have a way better attitude, and be a lot nicer.  So that way he can earn more respect and also be a better person.”

In an era of bitter political polarization, it’s nice to see evidence that a positive, measured approach still works.

*You can see the WCNC story about this experience here

A real life lesson in civil discourse

*note:  this article appeared in the Washington Post

I live in arguably the most polarized state in our country at one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history.  More often than not, discussions across the aisle in North Carolina are characterized by insults and hyperbole, and at times this corrosive political climate can be downright demoralizing.  But a recent spontaneous, real-life lesson in civil discourse with my 7th grade students gave me hope that the future might look different.

In the wake of the horrific murders of 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida, the idea of arming teachers to prevent school shootings was raised by legislators, then endorsed by President Trump. After mulling over the proposal, I wrote an op-ed which explained why giving guns to teachers was a dangerous idea and offered what I saw as a more effective solution.  

The article called out North Carolina for funding school counselors, psychologists, and social workers at levels far below the standard ratios recommended by their respective industries.  It suggested increasing funding for support services so students who need that help are more likely to get it.  The piece included my email address so that readers could contact me, and I received a number of emails from folks on both sides of the issue.  

One of the responses I received suggested the real reason I was uncomfortable with the idea of armed teachers was that I lacked testosterone and said I needed to spend more time lifting weights.  This message relied heavily on personal insults, offered very little in terms of meaningful support for the author’s views, and made no effort to understand my position.

After alternately laughing about and stewing over the email for a couple of days, I realized that it could be a useful tool in my classroom.  My 7th grade English Language Arts students were just about to spend a class period doing peer revisions on each other’s writing, and it seemed perfect timing to bring the text into my class and talk as a whole group about how it was written. The next day I gave students a bit of background on the op-ed for context, then showed them a slide with the email on it.  The only guidance I gave my classes was that I wanted them to read the text and offer suggestions on how it could be improved. Then I sat back and watched them work.

I was amazed by how positive and insightful my students’ responses were.  They offered suggestions for how the author might improve the mechanics of the piece and said that a civil tone would be more likely to lead to a productive debate.  Here are some of the specific recommendations my seventh graders made during class:


*Work to understand opposing points of view.

*Be sure that your opinion is clear and well supported.

*Take a fact-based approach if you want to persuade.

*Edit carefully for errors of conventions.  They impact credibility.

*Refrain from name calling.  It’s often cover for a weak position.


The wisdom of my students’ reflections on the unkind email reminded me of the Parkland high school students’ advocacy.  One of the few encouraging outcomes of that tragedy has been the leadership of the students who survived the shooting.  Students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg have showed an authoritative courage that has surprised many adults, and their activism has kept the public’s attention focused on solutions to school shootings far longer than is usually the case after such events.  The Parkland students have persisted despite the abuse of those who oppose their efforts, motivated by a desire to do right by their fallen classmates.

I’m inspired by the ability of the Parkland students and my own students to cut through the noise and focus on what’s most important: our need to be courageous and unite in the face of our shared challenges.  These young people give me hope that we might one day be able to rise above the divisive politics that make it impossible for us to address many of the problems we face as a nation. Let’s hope the rest of us are able to learn a crucial lesson from them that can help us move forward together.