Surprised by Kindness: The Unexpected Power That Comes from Doing Good

We never grow accustomed to the news of a school shooting; every time violence invades a place of learning, it feels like the sacred has been violated. This past spring, three lives were lost in two school shootings within a week. As families and communities grieve, many educators are asking themselves the question they always ask: “What can be done?”

Responses to these events vary. But in the aftermath of other school shootings, two teachers—at different schools, in different states—initiated campaigns of “secret kindness” that eventually went viral.

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, high school teacher Ferial Pearson experienced a range of emotions from shock to grief to fear. According to a TEDx Talk Pearson gave in 2014, she was discussing the shooting with her children when her son said, “When people bully me, I get really mad… I just want to lash out at somebody, at something, I want to hurt somebody, but then just in time, when someone is kind to me, that feeling goes away.” And then Pearson’s daughter commented, “What if people had been kinder to the shooter at Sandy Hook? What if people had been nice to him his whole life? Maybe the shooting would have never happened.”

This sparked Pearson’s idea to recruit her students as “Secret Agents of Kindness.” Her plan was that each week, they would draw an envelope containing an act of kindness and perform it as secretly as possible. Pearson’s high school juniors were enthusiastic about the proposal and went through a process of assessing risks, planning an agent-initiating ceremony, assigning each other secret agent names, and brainstorming a list of secret acts of kindness. These ranged from writing a letter to a classmate who tended to “fall under the radar,” to sitting with someone at lunch who was alone, to picking up litter after school every day. The only rules were that the acts of kindness couldn’t cost any money, and they had to be performed on school grounds because that was the culture Pearson’s class was seeking to change. Pearson required the students to journal about the experience every week.

In 2018, middle school teacher Justin Parmenter’s decided to institute a kindness campaign of his own when a freshman shot and killed a classmate at a school in his district. Parmenter said he had “already been thinking a lot about the decline in positive interactions in our society and how we might more effectively teach character in our schools. But this local act of gun violence added a new sense of urgency to my goal of building community and cultivating kindness between students.”

In Parmenter’s project, “Undercover Agents of Kindness,” his students drew the name of a classmate and then had two weeks to perform an unexpected act of kindness. Students who were barely acquainted began surprising each other with treats, complimenting one another, studying together, and helping carry books and musical instruments to class.

In both Pearson’s and Parmenter’s classes, students described feeling awkward about approaching someone they didn’t know well. However, a number of them said the kindness exercise positively affected their personal interactions, built stronger relationships between classmates, and inspired patience and forgiveness. Pearson said, “We became a family. We became braver. We became more loving. We couldn’t wait to come to school. We couldn’t wait to make someone’s day just by smiling at them.”

Interestingly, both Parmenter and Pearson mentioned the idea of power in reflecting on their students’ experiences.

“I wanted them to feel this sense of empathy,” Pearson said, “to understand how good it feels to be kind to people, to build a habit of kindness, to understand that they—as young as they were, as resource-less as they were monetarily—that they had some power.”

Similarly, Parmenter said that in his students’ written reflections on kindness, “… almost every time they added that they were proud of themselves… and felt the power in brightening someone else’s day.”

It is not wholly unsurprising that both teachers chose the word “power” to describe one of the byproducts of the kindness projects. Power is a commodity in short supply to teenagers, but which they crave.

Murray Milner, Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Advanced Studies in Culture and author of the book Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, studied teenage culture and its often pain-inflicting clique structures. He summarized some of his findings as follows: “Why this near obsession with status? It is because they have so little real economic or political power. They must attend school for most of the day and they have only very limited influence on what happens there… They do, however, have one crucial kind of power: the power to create an informal social world in which they evaluate one another.”

According to Milner, those “obsessive, superficial, and often mean-spirited” status concerns are rooted in a deep sense of powerlessness. When students feel powerless, they act out in a number of ways—sometimes even violently. Milner closes his book with some suggestions to reduce preoccupation with status by increasing teenagers’ real-world power, from internships to a lower voting age to youth representation on boards of public agencies.

Such ideas necessitate structural and even legal reforms that educators are unable to effect on their own. But what if simply requiring students to practice kindness could also instill a sense of power?

The question of what drives a person to an act of violence is complex and initiates discussions about abuse, mental health, gun access, and the idolization of previous school shooters. Clearly there is not any one single cause. But according to Peter Langman, a psychologist who has studied mass shooters, “These kids often feel very powerless. The one way they can feel like they’re somebody, that they’re a man, is to get a gun and kill people.”

It is impossible to head off every school shooting. But perhaps in a teenage world that is rife with this sense of powerlessness—sometimes with deadly results—the power of kindness could offer a two-fold relief. Maybe the cumulative effect of giving and receiving kindness could help quell the rage and despair some students experience. What kind of difference might it make if all students were consistently complimented, helped, and befriended as part of a school’s culture? At the same time, maybe experiencing the power that comes from practicing kindness could help dismantle this sense of powerlessness. Programs that inspire the exercise of kindness won’t solve the epidemic of school shootings, but maybe they will tip the balance for a few students. Doubtless, they have the potential to make our schools happier, stronger, and healthier for all.




The Importance of Being Frank: When Teachers and Students Don’t “Match”

Last month, Rodney Robinson was named National Teacher of the Year. Robinson works at Virgie Binford Education Center at the Richmond Juvenile Justice Center in Virginia. There he “creates a positive school culture by empowering his students – many of whom have experienced trauma – to become civically-minded social advocates who use their skills and voices to effect physical and policy changes at their school and in their communities.”


Robinson works hard to meet the needs of his students both academically and emotionally; he seeks to build their confidence as he encourages them to examine their lives and where they are headed. He told NPR that “it’s important that students have teachers and people who look like them, who think like them, who can understand their experiences in life and guide them to what they need to be.”


Studies have suggested that students can benefit from having teachers who mirror them in gender and race. For example, when black children have a black teacher between third and fifth grades, boys are significantly less likely to drop out of high school, and both boys and girls are more likely to go to college.


Of course, teachers who don’t reflect their students’ color and gender have also had success in their classrooms. That said, what should a teacher do when they don’t “match” the students they serve?


Thomas Dee, a Professor of Education at Stanford, tells teachers to overcome boundaries with the following: “Signal to students your deep faith in their capacity to learn, coupled with your high expectations that they’ll do great things, full stop.”


Sometimes, differences between teachers and students can go beyond gender and skin color to socioeconomic disparity. Patricia Maloney, an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, conducted a sociological study on charter schools published in the book The Content of Their Character. She observed that teachers at lower-income schools often try to impart not only knowledge but also “discrete systems to teach the students middle-class cultural capital.” Understandably, this can provoke resentment from students and their families when teachers unintentionally imply that what students have at home is somehow “worse.” However, Maloney found two elements that made a significant difference in this dynamic: candor about differences and respect for students’ home life.


“They [the students] appreciated when teachers would be clear and authentic about the fact that they knew that their backgrounds were different,” Maloney said in a recent interview. “They wanted the teachers to listen and, in some ways, honor the struggles that the students had to face to get to school every day.”


Part of honoring those struggles is acknowledging that whatever challenges they may face there, students’ homes provide great value.


Maloney said:

The teachers who said, “Look at how far you’ve come, look at the struggles that you face,”… having a mindset that honored the skills and the knowledge that the students did have—and being really overt and really clear and saying, “Yup, I’m white; you’re not;… you’re lower-income; I’m not;… I don’t know what your life is like, but let me tell you what I do know about, and you can take what you will. Know that I still honor what you have at home, but I’m just giving you a different set of skills” … I think that that was one of the key things that I saw happen at really effective [low income, predominantly minority] charter schools.


It can be tempting to ignore differences when they provoke feelings of awkwardness. But Maloney’s findings suggest that frankness is better than not addressing the differences or pretending they don’t exist. And truly honoring the contributions of a world different from one’s own is a way of showing that respect should go both ways, in the classroom and in life.


Value and Valedictorians

Michael Kim of Sugar Hill, Georgia, is about to graduate as valedictorian of his class at Lanier High School. On May 25, he will receive his diploma ahead of his 433 classmates and then present a speech to all in attendance. But Kim—who maintained straight As throughout high school and took 13 AP classes—is not without reservations about the system that afforded him these graduation day honors.


“The first semester of freshman year was the only time that high school was about doing well for the sake of it,” says Michael Kim. “Our first semester report cards had our ranks on them, and it was a competition from then on.”


As Kim’s comments illustrate, a school’s decision to rank its students has an effect on its culture. By the same token, its decision not to rank its students will have an effect on its culture. The arguments for and against both decisions can help illuminate the considerations facing educators hoping to mold student character.


The Pitfalls of Rank


The sense of competition Kim describes—sometimes perceived to be unhealthily fierce—is one reason that at high schools from Maryland to New Hampshire to Missouri, the practice of ranking is being discontinued, often with impassioned argument on both sides. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, more than 50 percent of secondary schools now forgo the reporting of class rank. Many are retaining grade point averages but moving to a Latin system of honors—cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. Others are eschewing these kinds of academic distinctions all together.


Critics of class ranking, such as author Alfie Kohn, say it breeds detrimental competition, demotivates students who aren’t in the running for the distinction, and discourages top students from taking classes that have less potential to boost GPA.


On this last point, Kim concurs. “I don’t believe I would have taken half the classes I did if I wasn’t fighting to maintain class rank,” he says. “Niche electives like piano or sculpting are not on the table if you are in need of taking AP classes.”


Limiting the appeal of electives, which are typically unweighted, can be an unfortunate byproduct of the ranking system; some scholars believe the emphasis put on quantitative measures of human achievement is cause for more significant concern.


In April, Jerry Muller, a professor of history at The Catholic University of America and author of The Tyranny of Metrics: The Use of Metrics in Modern Society, spoke at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s symposium Persons Without Qualities. Muller believes metrics do have a place in organizations when used for self-evaluation or collaboration between workers and managers.


But Muller expresses concern that metrics that appear to measure someone’s value can discourage risk-taking. Kim’s experience suggests that class ranking can have this effect on class selection. He explains that at his high school, ten points are added to the averages of students in an AP class to account for the more difficult coursework. This acts as a kind of “buffer”—a cushion that the honors and common curriculum classes do not have.


“Taking those [unbuffered honors] classes is inherently more risky,” Kim says. For this reason, those contending for the highest rankings try to take as many AP classes as possible—not always to challenge themselves so much as to increase their assurance of a high grade point average.


This leads to another of Muller’s concerns: “Metric fixation also discourages innovation,” he argues. “When people are judged by performance metrics, they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure. And what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means, by definition, doing something that’s not yet established—indeed, that hasn’t been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation; trying out something new entails risk, including the possibility—in fact probability—of failure, so performance metrics can discourage risk-taking and inadvertently then, promote stagnation.”


Muller’s findings also dovetail with Kim’s recollections about the shift from “doing well for the sake of it” to “a competition from then on” once class ranks were reported. Muller observes that metrics can contradict an ethos of intrinsic motivation and that “reward based on measured performance tends to promote not cooperation but competition.”


If the dynamic created by ranking can cause friction between students as they measure themselves against one another, it may even cause a sense of distrust toward the school itself. “There are negatives and positives,” Kim says. “The biggest negative that I see is that it makes people feel de-individualized. All of the testing we go through makes you think ‘maybe I’m just a number in the school’s book.’ And then ranking confirms it. ‘Oh, I am just a number.’ In a lot of scenarios, that really is all we are to the higher-ups in an educational program.”


The Potential of Rank


While not denying the risks described above, proponents of ranking say it can be a powerful motivator to academic excellence. Some students are spurred on by the achievements of their peers, as friendly competition pushes them to work harder than they would without it. Just like a poor grade on a test can signal that more work needs to be done, an awareness of rank can stimulate self-discipline and focus.


Indeed, a student’s sense of what constitutes “self-discipline and focus” can be redefined and elevated when they emulate a classmate whose success is spotlighted by a high class ranking. In a system without class rank, the extent and effectiveness of that exemplary student’s work ethic might be less visible to their peers.


Of course, critics of class ranking often question whether that “exemplary student” is truly exemplary. They may possess some valuable academic skills and self-discipline, the critics argue, but their “excellence” may also proceed from risk-aversion, fixation on external rewards, and an emphasis on personal rather than group success—behaviors that can weaken character, not strengthen it.


But it’s fair to note that class ranking is not the only metric that can induce a smallness of spirit. Most common academic metrics risk doing the same—a reason that Kohn, for instance, opposes grades, not just class ranking. Students who are lured into narrow decisions to achieve a high class rank face similar temptations in pursuing a summa cum laude instead of a magna cum laude or a 3.9 GPA instead of a 3.6. Unless a school is prepared to abandon grade-related systems, as some alternative schools and unschoolers do, it likewise faces the challenge of ensuring metrics meant to drive academic excellence don’t leave their students with moral flaws.


Proponents of rank can also point to students who defy the stereotypes. Kim’s comments suggest that whatever the trade-offs involved in a class rank system, a valedictorian can be perfectly ready to think for themselves. Nor did Kim excel in 13 AP courses without some intrinsic motivation. “At the end of the day,” he says, “it was more about doing well and doing the best I could. It was school success first; rank, second.”


The same was true for Lieutenant Colonel Eric Husby, a US Army Judge Advocate who graduated first in his high school class in 1996. Alongside the external rewards, intrinsic motivation was key.


“It would have been disappointing if I let myself down, not done my best, slacked off,” Husby says. “I was motivated to score high. If you took the valedictorian honor away, I would still have wanted to score high. It was an honor to put together a speech, like an athlete getting to finish a marathon and stand at the top of the podium, but it didn’t define anything or change much about how I treated school.”


And while class ranking may discourage students from running some risks, it encourages them to assume others. When a student signs up for a weighted course to improve their class rank, they are taking a genuinely difficult class, where the risk of failure—even major failure—can be high. Moreover, in response to difficult academic content, students may innovate in their problem-solving and study methods. They may even learn some of the benefits of cooperation by asking for help.


In fact, many students, including those who are ranked, willingly offer academic assistance to one another. Some schools have peer tutoring programs, often staffed by top students. And group projects that require cooperation are still a staple of most teachers’ educational toolkits whether a school has class ranking or not.


School Culture and Character


Thankfully, teachers and school leaders have a powerful opportunity to prove to students that they are more than the sum of their metrics, whether or not their schools utilize class rank. Your personal engagement—your interest in students’ lives and ideas, your reminders before testing that their value is not dependent on their scores—teaches them that they are much more than a number. The way you encourage them to take risks—to write the essay with an unusual viewpoint, to attempt the task that challenges them—calls them to a courage that a world of metrics might otherwise quash. Your fostering of collaboration in the classroom speaks the truth that kindness is just as important as academic success.


By this broadening of their moral horizons, you make it easier for them to respond with grace when a grade disappoints them, or with goodwill when another earns the award they strove for. They’ll become more comfortable, more adult, and more fully human in a world where no one, not even a valedictorian, will be the best at everything.


From rank to grades to state-mandated tests, the influence of quantitative measures may seem formidable, but yours is greater. You hold the power to shape character.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Patricia Maloney on Charter High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Patricia Maloney talks with CultureFeed Editor Joanna Breault about the concept of “grit” and how its application to lower-income students can be unfair. She also touches on what some schools are doing to help alleviate some of the challenges their students face.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Jeffrey Guhin on the Importance of Principals

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Jeffrey Guhin talks with veteran educator Angus McBeath about impact principals and administrative staff can have when they free up teachers to focus on the moral development of students.

Scholars on Schools: Interview with Charles Glenn on Islamic High Schools

To receive a free copy of the chapter of  The Content of Their Character that corresponds with this interview, please click here and sign up for our Weekly Digest.

Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Charles Glenn talks with CultureFeed Editor Joanna Breault about the development of personal and civic virtues at Islamic schools.