A New Etiquette
I love this story. It's so simple but often so overlooked. Once you get into the habit of these exchanges, your life changes. You begin to 'feel' the benefit, and to appreciate others. You become guided by kindness. It was very interesting how this became contagious too. Not just with the children but with the staff and with the families. It just became normal to hear people speak to each other this way and to hear a five year old enquire about your well-being or wishing you a nice weekend.
When I think about some of the most successful things that I did as a Headteacher, one thing springs to mind. This stems from my days in the classroom and the expectations set when creating the right environment and relationships. Many of the children in school came from chaotic circumstances and so it was critical to rewire our interactions.
'Rewiring is a good term. I used this a lot when thinking about changing behaviours. The idea that you can create a school environment where there is a mutual care and concern is a profound objective. This all started with some very explicit modelling from myself, that soon became who I am. This in itself was life-changing.'
To begin with, I stood at the door and told every child to 'have a nice evening'. Pretty much every child failed to reply, either because they didn't know how to, or why it was important.
The next day, whilst we lined up in the classroom, I told them that I was going to do it again, and it would be nice if they reciprocated.
And that was it. Every child did it and every child did it every day. We also did it at the start of the day. And so we created a 'culture'. By the time I became a Headteacher, the school was doing it wholesale, with sincerity and respect.
'The test on the door after a while was to say nothing and every time someone wished me a nice evening, I could respond with explicit gratitude. When children see this, they copy and the habit spreads. This may sound egocentric, but this made me feel good too. As this was the case with all parties, the sense of wellbeing soon becomes heightened.
On those days when things didn't go to plan, or the world seemed like it didn't care, each child always knew that this was a place where love and compassion was available regardless. The expectation was set.
This became the most impressive and sweetest thing that you could hear from a 6 year old;
'Good Morning Michael.'
'Good Morning Mr Rushby...
..how are you today?'
The WIN / WIN
These interactions represent respect. This is what children need. We must never assume that respect is a one-way system. This is what it was with some of my teachers when I was at school, they assumed that it was a given. They would expect respect just because they are the teacher, but this is not really how people think. You cannot tell someone how to feel about you, you must have enough self-awareness to understand how others perceive you. At the same time, you must be willing to genuinely respect them, regardless of age or ability.
This thing grew. I realised that if we were going to take this further, we needed to incorporate questions and enquiries. There is a big difference between saying 'good morning' and saying 'good morning, how are you?' This is simply because we can ignite the interaction. We are in a position to find something out about someone and to identify commonalities. This is how friendships start. When I became Headteacher and I addressed the children in assembly, we re-wired the interaction. Instead of 'Good morning Mr Rushby, good morning eve--ry--bo--dee...', I changed it to 'Good morning Mr Rushby, how are you today?' I could then respond with some chat. This inevitably meant that this was what the children began to do in their classrooms with each other and their teacher. When we had a visitor presenting our assembly I could see their face change when the children asked them how they were. They would have a sudden look of surprise on their face, before sharing their story.
I can remember one young man having a really bad day. His behaviour had not been good and he had found himself withdrawn from class. I supervised him for the afternoon as he huffed and puffed at the back of the room, slowly getting on with his school work. He was a boy that occasionally found himself in this situation and was part of an intervention group that I had in school that focusing on self-esteem and amongst other things, manners. As the school day ended, he asked if he could pack up and leave. He had calmed nicely and any early drama had subsided. As he walked past me to get his coat and to head for the door, I watched him. Sure enough, he turned around to me. 'Have a nice evening,' he said. It was just like that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Charlie returns the stolen sweet.
And I thought to myself, he will be ok.