Although my first year of teaching was more than two decades ago, I clearly remember how my second graders returned from Thanksgiving more settled and focused. I was teaching at a public school in Oakland, California, and as December began, I was hopeful, energetic and increasingly confident about the learning routines I’d established in my class. Yet cliques had formed among some of the girls, and too often kids were not nice to each other. Another teacher had given me a book called Tribes, a guide to building a safe and caring learning community in the classroom. I wholeheartedly adopted it.
Committed to addressing student dynamics, I found an activity in Tribes to try out. One day in our morning circle, each student drew the name of a classmate and became that person’s secret admirer for the day. The rules included that you couldn’t tell anyone which name you had chosen, and you had to observe that classmate all day and find behaviors to appreciate. At the end of the day, we squeezed back into our tight circle on the rug, and students revealed the person they’d been watching and shared appreciations: “Oscar gave Manuel his soccer ball during recess,” and “Lizette walked quietly to lunch,” and “Billy helped Tomas with math.”
Secret Admirers: A Simple Yet Powerful Activity
As students offered and received appreciations, their expressions shifted and revealed pride, joy, and connection. I was surprised at how astutely these 7-year-old children had observed each other, identifying specific, admirable behaviors in a classmate who may or may not have been their friend. When we debriefed and wrapped up the activity, Tomas asked if we could repeat the activity the next day, and the whole class echoed their approval. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
At the end of the second day of secret admirers, I got the same request. “Why can’t we do this every day?” asked Elizabeth. And so we did. Day after day, the kids pulled names from the hat. Sometimes we had “challenge days” where everyone drew two or three names. Other days were “Me too!” days—students also had to identify their own behaviors for which they wanted recognition. We created and posted lists of the student behaviors that kids were most proud of or most liked observing—those reflecting kindness, cooperation, personal responsibility, courage, and so on.
The day before winter break started, we reflected on the school year. I told them that during the break, I’d be planning for the rest of the year. I asked what would they like more of, or less of, and what suggestions they had for our class overall. The secret admirers activity was unanimously endorsed. “All year!” they chanted. Oscar, who had to exert a great deal of energy to regulate his behavior, said, “I love coming to school now, and every day I think, ‘I can’t wait to get caught doing good things!’” “OK,” I said, “we’ll keep doing it.” Their cheers attracted the attention of my colleague next door.
As I observed their excitement, I noticed that my behavior chart on the wall hadn’t been used in weeks—not since before we’d started this routine. I’d always had mixed feelings about this classroom management device—every time I asked a student to turn his or her card to orange or red, it only seemed to exacerbate his or her behavior, and the element of public shaming made me uncomfortable. When I walked into my classroom on the first day after winter break, I took it down.
In January, my students settled back into school routines, and I held my breath in the hopes that all would continue to go smoothly. And it did. Secret admirers continued throughout the year. The kids didn’t seem to tire of it, and the behavior chart never went back up. It was like a switch had been flicked in my classroom and the unpleasant interpersonal behavior between students declined considerably. Our community felt good. At the time, I didn’t know why this activity worked so well, but I was thrilled to be avoiding many of the classroom management challenges that my new-teacher colleagues were dealing with.
A Shift Toward the Positive
Some years later, I learned why the secret admirers activity worked: We focused on strengths, assets, or bright spots. This is an extensively researched approach in psychology, organizational change management, and neuroscience. And researchers in all those fields agree that focusing on the positive not only feels good but works when you’re trying to change or want others to change. If there are factions or tensions I sense in a group of adults I’m working with, I’ll use secret admirers or other community builders to surface the strengths and assets in the group. Whether you try this with toddlers or teens, or even adult learners, know that some may resist at first, but as with any activity or teaching strategy we give a go, keep at it, reflect after, and modify if necessary.
As you reflect on how this fall has been and how you might want to start next year, consider opportunities to focus on bright spots—in yourself, in your students, and in your community.