As part of our Core Values series, veteran educator Kesete Thomkins, a Dean at KIPP Academy Elementary, goes deep on the “Be nice” part of KIPP’s motto, and how a young student schooled him about why nice matters.

Be Nice. Work Hard.

“Don’t let them see you smile!” That’s the kind of advice my mentor gave me about being a new teacher. Everyone talked about about classroom control, but never mentioned respect or tolerance. I was new, so I internalized the advice that control was the key. Even before I became a teacher, where I grew up, there was always this sense that kindness was weakness; you can’t let people roll all over you.

What I have learned since then, is that nice is the most powerful tool on the path to prosperity. If used correctly, it opens up a world of possibilities for our students. For me, leading with kindness has made all the difference in the world.

Nice can be a simple act of kindness. It can be a friendly hello in the morning. It can be talking to a parent that you’ve never spoken to before about nothing in particular… just letting them know you care. Nice is saying “I see you.”

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Mr. Thompkins having a little fun on Character Day greeting students with a smile.

I had this conversation with KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, where we talked about how the Golden Rule is actually only half right. “Do unto others as you would want to be treated,” should really be “treat others how they want to be treated.” If you know me, you know that I’m a hugger, but maybe not everyone is, maybe they want a high five instead in the morning. Taking the time and making the effort to understand someone else’s needs is the only way to lead.

I doubt anyone my age can remember what they scored on any one elementary school assessment, but I’m sure they can remember their favorite teacher. Why? Because that score probably didn’t end up mattering all that much, but how that one teacher treated you and what they did for you, matters for the rest of time. It’s true what Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said… but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In my early teaching days, I controlled everything in the classroom. “Don’t ask to go the bathroom, because the answer is no!” “You can only sharpen your pencil twice a day!” I thought that if I controlled everything then nothing would go wrong. On paper, things were ok, and my kids’ grades were strong, but I was failing in so many other ways.

It was an 8-year-old student named Imani who taught me the best lesson and turned it all around for me. One morning she came in a bit disheveled, untucked. I needed to correct her immediately. Before I could even take two steps towards her she said “Mr. T, step back! Get outta my face. I don’t want that attitude today. I had a rough morning.” Usually I have a witty remark to come back with, but something about her body language and her attitude made me stop. Around noon, after she’d had a little time to cool off, I asked her: “What happened this morning?” And in that moment she taught me about the power of being nice. She said, in so many words, “You’re mean. And you being mean makes me not want to work with you or for you.” Pretty heavy stuff coming from a 3rd grader. Her words hurt, but she helped me realize I had it all wrong. Here I was thinking I was this great educator doing all this amazing work, getting good results, fighting the good fight. But I was being a jerk every step of the way and my kids hated me. Even though I slept great at night, my kids dreaded walking into my classroom.

But can you really hold your students to a high standard of excellence and make sure they follow directions and be nice. Yes. Can you hold yourself and your colleagues accountable to a high level of professionalism and be nice? Yes. Can you have difficult conversations with parents and be nice? Yes.

We see hate every day outside of our classrooms, in the street, and online. We have to understand how our kids are internalizing all of that. For us to show leadership and to truly be there for our students, I believe every interaction should be come through the prism of nice.

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