Our neighbor Mrs. Snyder was the one who pointed it out.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
See also: Lessons from Penn State