How do you know when you’ve made a positive impact on a former student? As a teacher, there isn’t anything much more rewarding than receiving an “out-of-the-blue” message via phone call, e-mail, social media, or a personal visit from a former student. While I’ve yet to be contacted about how wonderfully I taught a specific subject or lesson, I have had former students tell me about the life lessons they learned in my classroom that made a difference or had an impact on their successes.
Educators do so much more than teach content and prepare students for assessments. Yes, we teach A LOT of content in the short time we have students, but when we take a step back and objectively look at who, what, and where we want our students to be as adults, it becomes easier to slip quick life lessons into the classroom throughout the year. Life lessons can have an impact on students as they mature into adulthood or as they apply for that first job. Research tells us that lessons that tap into our emotions have a much greater chance of being retained, so creating funny or engaging scenarios—such as a fishy handshake or sharing stories from real-life—can help students recall specific social awareness skills they learned in the classroom.
Former students who have contacted me have affirmed their positive memories of classroom life lessons, saying:
“I knew how to look my future employer in the eyes as I shook her hand. I stood up straight and tall and presented myself confidently, even though I was scared to death.”
“I am very skilled at paraphrasing and listening to colleagues as they share.”
“I realize that every small task in college is just one step closer to finishing my degree; the finished project.”
Here are a few powerful, quick exercises I used in my classroom over the years to help students become responsible, respectful, caring adults:
Life Lesson: Respecting personal space
Using a small hula hoop, I demonstrated the boundaries forming the invisible personal space around each person, explaining that most people aren’t comfortable when others get inside their hula hoop, unless they invite them. Throughout the year, we practiced this exercise in pairs (don’t forget to laugh!), while reminding each other about respecting personal space.
Life Lesson: Greeting others with respect
In this exercise, I paired students up and sat them together, one as Person A and the other as Person B. I asked them to stand and shake hands, then sit down and watch me. A volunteer would come up and we’d address one another with a hand shake. I’d offer my right hand with the limpness of a cold, floppy fish. I would then ask the volunteer to tell the class what it felt like to shake my hand. In the risk-taking, honest, put-it-out-there, classroom environment we’d already firmly established, students never had any trouble describing my handshake as limp and very unimpressive.
Then, I’d greet the student with an overly zealous, extra firm handshake and get their take on that. Usually, the student would take a step back and freely express that the over-confident version was equally unimpressive. Finally, I would demonstrate a firm, look-you-in-the-eye, welcoming handshake and have the student describe the difference, explaining why the third one felt the most comfortable. As a class, the Person B students then practiced walking up to the seated Person A students. As the Person A students were approached, they stood and practiced the “just-right” hand shake. Throughout the school year we would occasionally take a brain-break from our studies to practice our handshakes.
Life Lesson: Being an engaged listener
I’d begin this exercise while seated in a chair at the front of the classroom. I would invite a student to approach me and share a story about their night; for example, their experience in a sporting event. As the student spoke, I would look everywhere but in their eyes, crossing my arms and legs, and acting completely disengaged from their story. As the class snickered and I continued my act, the storytelling student kept trying to get my attention, regaling me with tales of his superior athletic moves.
In our debriefing, I asked the storyteller to talk about how my behavior made him feel. The class chimed in, providing their personal observations. As a group, we would then brainstorm what engaged listening looks like and feels like, and, in pairs, we learned to paraphrase each other, appear approachable, and act engaged even when we didn’t feel it.
Life Lesson: Persevering through effort
This simple exercise offered several opportunities throughout the lesson for students to learn about grit, effort, and stamina, some of the most important skills they’ll need in life. I’d show online video snippets of people demonstrating effort in their daily lives. Students would then share effort stories about their own families, movies they’d seen, and times when they, themselves, persevered through a trying period. It was enlightening when students from other countries shared stories of their families’ struggles and perseverance in America. This not only illustrated effort, but celebrated the many cultures present in our classroom, creating a circle of care.
Educators: I’m sure you can add to my list! Please comment and share some of your most powerful classroom activities for teaching life lessons.
Cheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.