My Take on Kindness at DA by Middle School Dean of Students Robert Wilson


The concept of kindness is one that I have enjoyed contemplating throughout my personal and professional life, particularly with my students and advisees. Kindness is woven into many behaviors, actions and thoughts. A large portion of the humane side of being human is rooted in kindness.

Here is a list of words/phrases that comes to mind when I think of kindness: caring, empathy, understanding, sympathy, respect, service, benevolence, supporting, humane, patience, noticing, choosing to act, merciful, love, having faith, favor, godsend, compassion, gratitude, non-judgmental, aware, forgiving, showing appreciation, optimistic, grace, compassionate, considerate.

Throughout my life, I have placed great value on kindness and acting in a kindly manner. From an early age, I knew that I was going to try to do something with my life that would hopefully have a positive effect on others. While growing up, I was fortunate to be influenced by my thoughtful parents, a few relatives and a few exceptional teachers and coaches. While writing this, I am reminded that the people I truly respect and like are all kind. I grew up wanting to pursue a career that placed an emphasis on being kind.

So, I chose to dedicate my professional life to working with adolescents in a middle school setting.

Kindness may not be the first characteristic that comes to mind when considering the middle school environment. That is part of why I chose it. After 38 years of working with middle schoolers in a variety of settings, and as the current Dean of Students in the Middle School, I fully understand that this age group can at times be harsh and downright mean. However, middle schoolers also have a strong tendency to rise to an occasion. This is especially true when the students perceive a need and they are given a chance to take action.

While my comments are largely centered on my experience in the Middle School, I believe that kindness is very important and prevalent throughout the Durham Academy community. The Durham Academy Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life highlights kindness as one of the 15 attributes that we believe, as a school, will enable our students to live moral, happy and productive lives.

Kindness is prevalent throughout DA. The following sections provide examples of behaviors, actions and traditions that reflect the value of kindness within the DA school community. One caveat: As a math teacher, I am certain the lists are incomplete! They are merely to serve as a sampling. 

Teacher to student/advisee:

  • Greeting students individually (both in and out of class).
  • Conveying a confidence/faith that kids will do the right thing. Only time will tell how many attempts that may require. Having confidence in a student provides the student the opportunity to develop confidence in him or herself. What a gift.
  • Being patient especially when the other party is putting forth effort.
  • Having a sense of humor.
  • Understanding the nature of our students and that young adolescents are immature.
  • Having high expectations, not unreasonable ones.
  • Understanding where our kids are developmentally—physically, emotionally and intellectually.
  • Recognizing students as the individuals they are and celebrating that individuality.
  • Being in the moment with whomever you are with—being present, paying attention and being observant.
  • Listening.
  • Being curious about each student’s story and conveying interest.
  • Bringing an open mind to practically all situations. Trying to understand the perspective of others and suspending judgment.
  • Being sensitive to the students’ feelings, needs and desires.
  • Being supportive.
  • Encouraging the kids to grow intellectually, emotionally and ethically.
  • Paying attention to the physical and mental health of our students.
  • Emphasizing that doing your best and then trying to improve is plenty. Perfection is overrated.
  • Encouraging and expecting kids to think. Giving them time and opportunities to do so. Allowing them to have and to share their thoughts or perceptions—they will develop in time.
  • Balancing a healthy dose of desire, determination, dedication to excel, achieve and compete with an internal kindness toward yourself.

 Student(s) to Student(s)

  • Applauding one another’s accomplishments and presentations in classrooms, advisory, class meetings and in Taylor Hall.
  • Respecting academic achievement (math and foreign language competitions, essay contests, Battle of the Books, chess, Science Olympiad). 
  • Accepting others for who they are… this is big.
  • Being an attentive and respectful audience.
  • Empathizing, respecting and honoring one another during events which potentially expose the private lives, torment and turmoil an individual may be experiencing, like the Poetry Slam.
  • Showing appreciation for the athletic effort and achievement of teams and individuals.
  • Celebrating and acknowledging the creativity of others.
  • Stopping to help a student who trips or falls and all their stuff goes flying.
  • Appreciating and applauding performances in the arts
  • Peers showing empathy, caring and kindness when a student is in distress. Being happy and honored to help a classmate in a cast, on crutches or in need.
  • Respecting the courage of others for taking risks—during solos and duets, fine arts performances, the geography bee, delivering speeches during student council elections or sharing a “lollipop moment.”
  • Writing and sharing Notes of Appreciation.

Students to Teachers

  • Writing letters of gratitude and thanks during exams.
  • Greeting teachers upon entering classrooms or in passing.
  • Thoughtful recognition at particular times.
  • Thanking teachers at the end of class.
  • Giving thanks to teachers with letters/cards.
  • Writing and sharing Notes of Appreciation.
  • Sharing treats with teachers for the students’ respective birthdays.
  • Honoring the teachers’ expectations by working hard to meet or exceed them.
  • Helping teachers with a heavy load, or empathizing if they have a rough day.

Teachers to Students  

  • Including student, faculty and staff birthdays in morning announcements.
  • Supporting student-led initiatives like clubs.
  • Writing and sharing Notes of Appreciation.
  • Writing personal letters to each member of the eighth-grade class.
  • Sharing “lollipop moments” in community meetings.

(In a nutshell, as a faculty we recognize, get to know, acknowledge and accept our students for who they are and we put a tremendous effort into trying to teach skills, concepts and a body of knowledge in an engaging manner while guiding them to lead happy, moral and productive lives.)

Teachers to Teachers

  • Teachers’ willingness to cover shifts or duties for one another.
  • Empathizing with one another (teaching is very challenging!)
  • Welcoming new teachers to the community.
  • Planning special recognition for interim teachers.
  • Recognizing and appreciating each other’s strengths.
  • Helping to support new teachers in their transition to a complex community with a deep history and high expectations.
  • Supporting one another—particularly during challenging times.

Administration to Teachers

  • Providing a generous budget for professional development.
  • Funding a sabbatical annually.
  • Encouraging faculty members to take a risk with new units or teaching techniques.
  • Providing delicious food and snacks for our all-school meetings.
  • Providing special recognition for tenured faculty members who retire.
  • Recognizing excellence in teaching through F. Robertson Hershey Distinguished Faculty Award.
  • Truly appreciating the work of the faculty and coaches.

Parents Association to Teachers/Students/Community

  • Funding faculty wish list items.
  • Organizing events to raise money to support the school (Turkey Trot, Used Book Sale, annual auction, etc.).
  • Providing a special book and recognizing faculty and staff for every five years of service.
  • Providing an annual teacher appreciation lunch.
  • Providing goodies in the faculty lounges at appropriate times of year.
  • Arranging mentor families for families new to DA.
  • Recognizing the birthdays of faculty and staff members.
  • Funding assemblies and speakers.

From my own perspective, as a classroom teacher and as the Middle School Dean of Students, there are many behaviors, practices and thoughts that I try to bring to all the interactions I have with my classes, individual kids, colleagues and parents within the DA community. Frankly, I try to approach all the interactions I encounter with a similar mindset. While I am not always successful, I hope that my overall behavior choices convey a degree of kindness to all.

Maybe the strongest testament I can offer to support my belief that kindness is a trait that DA truly values is my 28-year tenure at the school. If I did not feel that kindness was important and valued at DA, I would like to think that I would have left for a greener pasture a long, long time ago.