Classroom Lessons Prove
Kindness Is Catching

The clock on the nightstand registered 6:00 a.m. Maria Sanchez rolled over and punched the snooze button. She didn't feel much like spending another hectic day with her class of twenty-eight fifth grade students. She seriously considered calling in sick. When the alarm went off again, she got up and went through the motions in a trance like state. The smell of fresh coffee brewing put her in slightly better spirits.

In her car on the way to school she thought about how much time she spent refereeing altercations between her students. Her school had a policy of zero tolerance for bullying and students were encouraged to seek help from the adults in charge. Maria calculated that the time she spent settling disputes was robing her of precious teaching time.

While traveling the familiar route from her apartment to school, her thoughts wandered to something she'd read recently. Although not a Buddhist herself, she was enamored by a late sixth century BCE (Before Common Era) principle. Confucius emphasized benevolence, respect for others, and reciprocity as the foundations of social order.

By the time she reached her spot on the parking lot, Ms. Sanchez was determined to be proactive. She would use the Buddhist principle to encourage social order in her classroom.

Before the students arrived, she wrote on the chalkboard, "BE NICE FIRST". Then she watched very carefully for small acts of kindness. When Jenny offered Bruce the lend of a pencil, Ms. Sanchez remarked to Jenny, "That was a very nice thing to do." And, Bruce said, "Thank you, to Jenny."

Ms. Sanchez explained that starting on the right foot lets others know we're willing to cooperate, and invites them to cooperate in return.

A small start, but a start Ms. Sanchez thought to herself. Later that day she led a class discussion about being nice and noticing when someone is nice to you. Then she gave a homework assignment. Between now and tomorrow's class, do one small kindness for someone and see what happens.

The next morning, Maria Sanchez didn't hit the snooze button. Instead she used the extra time to plan the next "be nice" lesson.

The first order of the day was to collect the homework assignments. Jose waved his hand in the air and Ms. Sanchez called on him. "I helped my mom clear the table after supper without being asked."

"Well, that certainly was a very nice thing to do. What did your mom say?"

"She said she had a little extra time and did I want to play a game of checkers?"

"Oh, so your mom was nice back."

"Yeah." Jose grinned and sat down. He mumbled, "I beat her too."

Just then a disheveled looking Sonia entered the room stumbled and dropped her books on the floor. She looked at Ms. Sanchez, then at the floor. She mumbled something about her dog getting out and said, "Sorry I'm late."

Jose got to his feet and helped her pick up her books.

Ms. Sanchez noted to herself, the many other occasions when Sonia complained that Jose teased and taunted her. She took the opportunity to highlight Jose's act of kindness.

Jose grinned. "Maybe Sonia should do my homework for me. That would be nice."

The class laughed.

"Whoa, slow down." Ms. Sanchez clapped her hands in the air to get their attention. "Jose, you're right about the importance of being nice back, but there is such a thing as being too nice." She wrote the word "RECIPROCATE" on the chalkboard. "Anybody know what this word means?"

There were no hands waving. There were only blank faces.

Janine, one of the more ambitious students offered to look it up in the dictionary. She read. Reciprocate: to give and get reciprocally, to give, do, feel etc. (something similar) in return.

Ms. Sanchez ended the day's class with a discussion about reciprocity. She pointed out that it's easier to be nice to people we like, but it's just as important to be nice to people we don't know very well or don't like very much. It would be a lot to expect for us to like every person we meet. She emphasized that we don't have to be overly nice, or be good friends with everyone, but we do need to let them know we are willing to cooperate.

The next assignment was to be nice to someone you don't know very well.

Janine raised her hand and asked, "Why not just be nice all the time?"

"That's a good question, Janine. We'll talk more about that another time.

    —M. LaCourt