Modeling Kindness in the Classroom

By Sarah Eason, Educator

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
7 min readMay 13, 2024


If you’re like me, the feelings you had on your first day teaching — that unique cocktail of excitement and optimism laced with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome — are forever seared into your memory. That day was years ago for me, but I remember it vividly. As I stood in the hallway between classes and intentionally smiled at each passing student, a veteran teacher leaning in the doorway one classroom over, looked at me and said, “Don’t smile. Don’t let them see any sign of weakness.”

Looking back, I’m sure that comment was mostly sarcasm. Still, it took me off guard. Was being kind a sign of weakness? I didn’t think so. I mulled it over the rest of the evening but ultimately decided that while I would establish boundaries and expectations in my classroom, I would also model kindness, empathy, and respect. It’s a delicate balance that I do not always get right, but I do owe my teaching success in large part to the rapport I’ve built with my students over the years.

I’m sure I’m not the first educator out there to voice the importance of relationship-building, but modeling kindness works as the cornerstone of that philosophy because it allows me to show my students that I genuinely care about them as individuals, which encourages them to be more communicative and empathetic in turn. Now, I teach upper-level ELA courses, so I understand that I have the unique privilege of providing ample opportunities for in-depth discussion and personal writing, where students are encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings so I can get to know them on a personal level. Nevertheless, I believe all teachers can implement this strategy to varying degrees, tailored to their subject and grade level.

In my classroom specifically, modeling kindness means setting aside intentional time at the beginning of the school year to get to know my students before jumping into the curriculum. It means learning their passions and figuring out ways I can help them achieve their goals. It means encouraging them to use their voice, to articulate their opinions on complex subjects — even if their opinions challenge the status quo. It means I’m not condescending when I disagree with what they’re saying, and that I treat them as fully autonomous human beings whose voices are just as valid as mine. I model for them what it looks like to engage in civil discourse and encourage diversity of thought. I hold them to high standards and push them in constructive ways to think deeper, be more critical, rise to a challenge, and solve a problem. And when they’re having a tough time and need to decompress between classes, I’m there for that, too. It’s amazing when that classroom culture begins rubbing off on the kids, and they begin treating each other with more kindness and respect in turn.

Now, lest my message come across as a reductive oversimplification of classroom management, let me add a giant disclaimer: this isn’t going to work with every student. There are plenty of students I’ve had over the years who haven’t been responsive to my approach, so I’m not going to sit here and say that kindness fixes everything. You can’t build relationships where they’re not wanted — but in a sense, respecting that boundary when a student refuses to engage with you is a form of kindness, too. I know I can’t win over every student, but I do believe I have minimized negative experiences by shaping my teaching persona around genuinely caring for the kids.

While I’m on the subject, let me make a distinction between being nice and being kind. Niceness implies being polite and agreeable at all costs for fear of rocking the boat. I am not advocating for you to be a pushover. I’m not telling you to let your students do whatever they want, and I definitely don’t mean you should enable bad behaviors that set them up for failure. Kindness is something different; it means that my priority, before I write any lesson plan or create any activity, is the well-being of my students. When you genuinely care about them, you know what’s going on in their lives, their interests and hobbies, what makes them tick. It goes beyond merely caring about how they perform in your class; you care holistically about every facet of their lives. They know it when you truly have their best interests at heart. They begin to trust you, and that’s when the magic happens.

Some people may hear me talk about kindness and think my classroom is a lawless land void of discipline, but kindness and discipline aren’t mutually exclusive. There are many occasions when the kindest thing I can do for a student is to let them experience the consequences of their actions. If they mouth off and get detention, okay. If they stayed up all night playing Fortnite and failed their test, so be it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of showing grace when appropriate, but if that grace becomes limitless, I’m just enabling them, and that is not kind. What a disservice I would be doing to my students if, for example, I passed them when they hadn’t actually learned the skills they needed to succeed! Kindness in many cases is synonymous with tough love and accountability.

However, kindness also means restoration, reconnecting with the student after the consequences, and helping them come up with a plan for change. Some of the deepest relationships I’ve ever built were with students who absolutely hated me at the start because I was the first person in their lives who’d ever held them accountable for their actions, and it was only later that the relationship began to heal. Especially in post-pandemic education, the chances are extremely high that you’ll be that person for your students, too. I don’t want to minimize the struggles many teachers are facing right now, so please don’t hear me saying that the onus should rest solely on the teacher to repair toxic or abusive relationships where parents, administrators, and counselors have failed. Practice restorative relationship-building where you can, but don’t be afraid to establish boundaries for your own health and safety. There will be times when the kindest thing you can do is disengage. This is the final step in modeling kindness: you have to remember to be kind to yourself, too, to model self-respect for your students. We all have to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others.

Ultimately, I am fortunate that my positive experiences in building relationships through modeling kindness have vastly outweighed the negative. This became more apparent than ever last fall when I stepped down from my full-time position while helping my family navigate a health emergency. I’m now teaching dual enrollment courses online and building a career as an instructional designer, but I will always cherish the relationships I formed with those crazy, amazing high schoolers. The day I left, I was gifted a bundle of papers joined with a rubber band. They were thank-you letters — not just from my current students, but from students I’d taught every year of my teaching career. The recurring theme was a sense of gratitude for the kindness I’d shown them — many of those occasions being times when I didn’t think I was making any difference whatsoever. It was one of those rewarding, full-circle moments I wish for all educators, and I tell you this because it’s also a testament that modeling kindness does pay off. Maybe not with everyone all the time, but it does make a difference. You make a difference, whether you’ve realized it or not. Keep showing your students what it means to be kind, and the future generations of our world will be better because of you.

Sarah Eason holds a BA in English and an MBA from Harding University, as well as an MA in English Literature from Abilene Christian University. She has taught high school and college-level English and business courses for ten years and currently also works as a freelance instructional designer. She loves helping students of all ages get excited about learning.

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