This has been a year like no other in our lifetime. In the face of such upheaval, there are silver linings, little rays of light shining through. At a certain point in the last few months I decided to embrace the new abnormal and do something with it. Yes, there have been obvious downsides, but I have been looking for the upsides. I have wondered what we will take out of these times, remember, cherish and keep with us as things return to something resembling normality. Well this is my little ray of sunshine: the deep and enduring capacity we have as humans to care for others.
It’s 7:35 AM and I am outside Junior School in “my new spot”. It is cold, but I would not want to be anywhere else at this time of the day. As a class teacher my day always began and ended at the doorway to the classroom. Doug Lemov, in Teach like a Champion, wrote about the threshold of the classroom and the power of teachers standing at their doors to set the tone as students enter and communicate they care. In recent months I have reimagined this setting as I now stand at the entrance to the school.
Every morning along with temperature checks and hand sanitising, I have the privilege to check in with every student and staff member in the Junior School. This new morning ritual has taken me back to my roots as a classroom teacher and reminded me that one of the best things about teaching is everyone has a fresh start every morning, the chance to make a good first impression each day. Being outside and talking to parents and students creates a welcoming atmosphere and keeps me in tune with what's going on. It's a win-win situation.
The poet Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. In a school setting, the words of Maya Angelou greatly resonate with many of the day-to-day routines, including how we greet others. The way we start our interactions—through words and actions—can reveal a number of characteristics about us, such as our comfort level, and interest in learning about others. Greetings can help us build new connections with others and strengthen bonds, especially when we make sure that the other person knows they are important to us.
My new morning routine has had many unexpected consequences. One of the most enduring is the group of Year 6 girls who join me each morning. Not because they must, but rather because they saw a need and thought they could help. Each morning these girls arrive in full school uniform, pop on a glove and open car doors for the families of the Junior School. On occasion I have found one of them in “my spot”, checking temperatures, greeting girls, and wishing them a great day. You can’t beat that. They have become the first contact with the School community every morning. They offer a welcoming smile and a “how are you this morning?”. They assist with girls juggling bags and scooters and musical instruments and flowers for the teacher and cupcakes and Number Smash/Wonder Words books, and on one occasion, a sheep! In doing so, they provide a reassurance for younger students as they transition from home to school. For our youngest students they walk alongside them and settle them into their learning spaces for the day.
These Year 6 girls embody the teacher-student interactions which are at the heart of the School. They, like me, use the morning greeting to check in with students every day. Are they smiling? Do they seem distracted? As a group we take the time to chat with the girls which is an opportunity to notice the little things, creating a space for students to have a fresh start each day, to open their minds to the possibilities that await them, developing a willingness to try new and challenging tasks.
Research shows that greeting students as they come into school and their classroom creates a feeling of belonging and readiness to learn. We know that for girls, the driver for learning is the social connection and it is this connection that activates their cognitive skills. By starting the day with someone saying to them, “I see you, I know you, I’m connecting with you, and you’re important to me,” we bolster a feeling of belonging and readiness to learn.
Each morning is like a pulse check to see where the girls are. Are they going to have a good day? Many of my interactions over the hand sanitiser are very intentional to build deeper relationships, to get to know students, to find out something about them. In turn they get to find out something about me. We get to make a connection and this all starts before they have even walked through the door. This time in the morning is invaluable for setting a tone, favourably impacting the overall climate and culture of the school.
Why do positive greetings work? When teachers use strategies like this, they help “establish a positive classroom climate in which students feel a sense of connection and belonging. This is particularly important considering the research demonstrating that achievement motivation is often a by-product of social belonging” (Cook, Fiat, Larson, et al. 2018). In other words, when students feel welcome at school, they’re more willing to put time and effort into learning.
While we can’t and wouldn’t want to live in long-term lockdown mode, these past few months have demonstrated our capacity to adapt and change. This is important as in all the disruption we are experiencing, there are lessons to be learned. The power of saying good morning, making eye contact and wishing someone a great day has far reaching consequences beyond that of good manners.
Allday, R. A., & Pakurar, K. (2007). Effects of teacher greetings on student on-task behavior. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 40(2), 317–320.
Cook CR, Fiat A, Larson M, et al. Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. 2018;20(3):149-159.
Lemov, Doug, 1967-. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0 : 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass