A little while ago, I read a brief on-line discussion about the words ‘cute’ and ‘nice’. I think we can all agree that they are generic words, words that make a writer cringe. ‘Cute’ is appropriate for animals and kids, absolutely. Both words are insipid and insulting when describing works of art, so I won’t even discuss that aspect of ‘nice’. I want to talk about being nice.
Indi and I pass a house every morning on our way to the park that has several dogs chilling on the porch or in the backyard. If they’re in the backyard, Indi has to stop and sniff them through the fence. Being Chihuahuas, they go berserk, thus offending Indi and causing her to bark back. This morning, I pulled her away and said, “That is not nice!” That started my meditation on niceness.
Having worked as a daycare provider and an elementary teacher for the last eleven years, I embrace the progressive language changes we’ve made. I’ve never shamed children or pronounced judgment that they’re good or bad. But I have told them to ‘be nice’.
The director of the first private Montessori school I worked in said to me that when I interacted with children, I came from a place of profound respect. I think it’s the best compliment I ever got.
The above picture is of one of my students, with me (and Indi, of course) behind her. It wasn’t in a classroom, it was in a studio space I briefly shared with her mother. Neither of us knew it was being taken. This picture is close to my heart, because I think it illustrates a great truth. The proper place for a teacher is in the background. S/he is there to provide a safe space and constant support, with guidance freely available should the student want it.
My elementary classroom (with grades 1-3, and an occasional older student) was very free, very informal and very emotionally safe. All I asked from them was that they be nice.
Sometimes I called it something else: respectful, kind, civil, courteous. We did not hurt each other, our pets, our materials or the environment. But it was really just being nice.
For some people, ‘nice’ connotates ‘phony’, but not for me. Just the opposite, if fact. To me, being nice to other people is going into the world with an open heart and being a genuine person, not taking out your own anger or frustration on others.
I never asked more from my students than they were capable of. Respect and safety were paramount. I—and the parents who placed their children in my care—were committed to sheltering children in their early years, to help them become strong and healthy and able to be independent critical thinkers when they were older. Parents who believed in immersing their kids in the “real, hard, cold world” withdrew them from my class pretty quickly. I once actually had one mother worried about her son’s SAT scores—he was in the second grade. She decided I was not the right teacher for him. Rightly so.
Ultimately, my democratic ideas did me in, although I believe they are in perfect alignment with the Montessori philosophy of peace and independence. I left my first private school after two years because I had a major personality clash with the teacher I worked with. After seven tumultuous and emotionally draining years at my second (sometimes, astonishingly unprofessional) private school—seven years of myself and two of my best friends treated unkindly and unfairly by our boss and another teacher who didn’t agree with our methods and made it personal—I was fired. By text. Yes, it still rankles. It was only a year ago.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to teaching. It kind of broke my heart, even though I’m good at it and I really miss it. I miss the kids horribly; they taught me more than I ever taught them and I loved being with them. But I strongly dislike the structure of education in this country and the pressure on teachers and kids to conform—it and many of the teachers are not nice and they don’t show children how to be nice. (Though I know, of course, that many teachers are, and many work so hard within the system and give so much that it boggles my mind.) If I had a young one right now, I’m sure I would choose to home-school.
Being nice isn’t valued anymore, as far as I can see, but I think we could use a little more niceness in the world.