The Non-Curriculum

Our neighbor Mrs. Snyder was the one who pointed it out.
One morning on my way to school, she came out to meet me as I passed her house.  She asked if something was wrong and I shook my head.  "Well, you look so sad when you walk to school, always looking down at the ground.  Look up, be proud," she said.  I thought of what? but didn't say it. "Did you know," she added, "that people don't smile because they're happy.  They feel happy because they smile."

Being the quiet, pensive type, I thought about that for the rest of my walk and through my day in seventh grade.  The next day, I experimented.  When someone walked by me, I looked up and smiled at them. I even dared to smile at one of the popular kids.

Years later, science proved Mrs. Snyder (and Charles Darwin incidentally) correct.  As a series of studies confirmed, smiling does make us feel better. And wearing a grumpy face makes us grumpier.  Walk around any school and you'll see children looking sad, looking down at the ground like I did. Does this impact their learning?  Their future prospects?  It may.  And that's why the non-curriculum matters.

The non-curriculum doesn't displace the curriculum.  The core disciplines and skills are still what schools are all about.  The non-curriculum is more like what we do the rest of the school day.  It's what we model, what we reinforce and the habits we inculcate.  One of those is encouragement to smile but there's more, especially for kids raised in poverty.

Shaking Hands
Whether interviewing for a job, visiting a college you hope to attend or meeting with customers, a firm friendly hand shake with a smile and eye contact can be the unadvertised ticket to success.  Whenever I met with students, I offered my hand to shake before and after a conversation.  At awards assemblies, every student who came to the podium shook hands with the presenter.  Sometime during that assembly, I would comment on how nice and firm -- not wimpy -- the handshakes were.

Courtesy and Helpfulness
When I went to North Valley High School as principal, the superintendent charged me with "civilizing the student body."  His experiences with NV students had been disconcerting -- students greeting him with profanities, not bothering to hold a door open for the person behind them, food fights in the cafeteria.  By my second year, contractors working on wiring or installations at the school made a point of dropping by the office to praise the student body.  Our students held doors open for them, offered to help carry loads and volunteered to show them around.

This doesn't happen by chastising or shaming students.  It happens by modeling, being visible and appreciating their good efforts.  Is it important because it makes the school more pleasant?  Sure.  But it's also important to help them down the road, long after graduation.

Self Image
Adolescence is a tough time.  Teens' self images are almost entirely external.  They believe they are the people others tell them they are.  They are crushed by criticism and taunting but only barely moved by praise.  My focus was on the kids who met with me for discipline.  My job wasn't just to discipline students fairly, it was to engage with them, one on one, to elevate their sense of a positive self.  It often went something like this:

"Every one of us has a worst thing we ever did.  Maybe this was yours.  I have mine too.  The difference is that I know what yours is but I will never tell you mine.  But it's here, it is always with me.  And it reminds me that I'm not that person, I'm not the worst thing I ever did.  And that's not who you are either.  I know that if I was broken down on the side of the road (even though I'm about to expel you...), you'd stop to help.  Because that's who you really are."

I always got a nod, a sad apologetic nod.

Teaching integrity is about making the assumption that kids already have it.  I always believed what students told me -- I told them so as well.  That is, until I caught them in a lie or a cheat.  Integrity is the one thing we have that no one can take from us.  We can lose our homes, our jobs, our health, even our loved ones.  But integrity can only be given away, never taken.  We need to elevate it in schools, making sure that no teacher, no coach, no administrator sanctions cheating or even the subtlest dishonesty.

Students knew that so long as our trust relationship was intact, they could count on me to be behind them.  If something serious ever happened, their word would be good.  So what happened when they did lie, when I caught them?  A very intense private conversation about trust and relationships.  After all, what is any relationship if not trust?  And a chance to make it better, with me, with their parents, with their teachers.  The understanding that once broken, it will take a long time to rebuild but that it was worth it.  And in the meantime, they should not be surprised that people don't trust them.

The non-curriculum is not the core mission of schools.  That's what happens in the classroom, that's the academics.  But it may well be that the non-curriculum is the bigger factor in the trajectories of kids' lives.  Elementary schools generally do a better job with the non-curriculum than middle and high schools do.  But we all are responsible for it.  Every adult in every school.  Every adult who interacts with kids, wherever.