Teaching Ideas

Back to School: Building Community in Week 1

This post by Todd Diehl originally ran at the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

It’s almost time to go back to school! As Dr. Gabor Mate explains, “Educators should be in the emotional attachment business before they are in the academics business.”

Before you can even think about teaching your students, you have to give them a reason to appreciate your class. In other words, students won’t care about what you teach until you show them you are a teacher who cares. Today I would like to share with you what practices I use to start the school year off with with compassion, empathy, and nonviolence.


I begin the year by making sure every student in the class knows the names of every other student. We do name games, name challenges, and take a names quiz to make sure they get it right. It’s important to build community because knowing names helps rehumanizes and renews connections to other people. What’s more, it helps you for the rest of the year because the students work together to learn each others’ names at the start. I take the quiz with them, usually on the first Friday after classes begin.


Instead of an exhaustive list of rules, I have a list of six values: Awareness, Honor, Audacity, Perseverance, Quality, and Community. We spend time defining and exploring what it means to live by these values. We also talk about the opposite, or lack of, the values (EX: the lack of Awareness is distraction). Then I use them as a basis for my classroom management. If the students are not emulating the values, we have a discussion about how they can do better. I give awards every semester for the student who most demonstrated each of the values. You are welcome to choose values that you believe in; the most important thing of all is that YOU model and live by the value you choose.


If you show your students at the start of the year that they can work together on challenges, fun games, and other team-building activities, they will have success throughout the year when they learn the material you are teaching: especially if you use a similar format where they learn cooperatively. Feel free to engage in team-building activities throughout the year as well when students have flagging morale.

I hope these tips help you start off the year with nonviolence! These are some first steps to help students see you are a teacher who cares, and that other students in the class care about them.

The Cure for Distraction is Mindfulness

This is an edited version of a post at the Metta Center for Nonviolence by Todd Diehl.

There are so many things competing for our students’ attention these days. When I was in high school, we had to go home to a television or our radios to play video games, watch movies or listen to music. Today, they have a device that does all that and more—including ways to keep in touch with and impress people all over the country—in the palm of their hands.

Those phones represent a powerful and relentless temptation. On a given day, I tell my students to put their phones away and focus an average of 27 times. In spite of all my entreaties, suggestions, and reminders of consequences, students still turn to their phones on a regular basis.

It’s easy to see we are distracted as a whole society. The classic example is of the man who is attempting to text and walk at the same time and ends up tripping over something in the street. Of course texting and driving is a serious concern. In fact, one study said the effects of texting while driving on concentration are effectively the same as driving while drunk. Imagine how hard it is to learn new, complicated material if your brain is impaired in a way similar to being inebriated!

I have tried numerous suggestions for students to help them focus. Once, a bit tongue in cheek, I told them I wanted to show them a fancy new feature on their phones: that they turn off. Some schools, in fact, require students turn their phones off while in the building, and while that helps, it doesn’t teach students how to manage this constant supplier of endless distractions. I believe in a much more holistic, far reaching approach to end distraction: mindfulness.

It would be an easy thing to teach kids at an early age how to recognize when their minds are distracted, then have them practice a moment of mindfulness to get back on task. You could teach or recommend whichever mindfulness method you prefer: mantram, deep breathing, reciting a short verse or passage. This would serve the simple purpose of refocusing a student’s mind when it wanders off. The benefits to the students’ discipline and grades would be quite remarkable, I am sure. But it could also easily apply to other sectors of the students’ lives, from managing emotions to managing temptations. From the limited teaching of mindfulness I have begun to engage in (you have to present it carefully in a public school) students have expressed positive responses, saying that it helped them calm down and focus in a soccer game or during a test. And Congressmen Paul Ryan of Ohio has seen some very positive results in his mindfulness training programs for children in public schools in Ohio—the elementary school teachers also appreciated the training!

I recall a chapter of Robert Wolff’s Original Wisdom in which Robert teaches the Sng’oi people of Malaysia how to read and write. He did this at their request and the teaching took, in total, a day and a half. What this demonstrates is that human beings have a remarkable, innate capacity for learning when they are motivated and focused. It is our duty as teachers, beyond teaching reading, writing, and math skills, to help students navigate through our fragmented world and focus on what is important in the present moment. With focus and mindfulness, we can tap into our primal learning power, and free our students from the endless maze of distractions to a world of self-discovery and knowledge.

Social and Emotional Learning

“I have noticed it in my own experience that, if we would approach children in humility and in innocence, we would learn wisdom from them.” — Gandhi

Not too long ago, I filled up the bulk of my “free time” by becoming a preschool teacher in a Montessori classroom of 3-6 year olds. It filled my heart to see the spirit of humanity, day in and day out, in what Maria Montessori would call “the embryonic stage.” And each day, if I observed carefully, I learned something new and beautiful about our human nature. For example, my colleague and guide, Andrée, pointed out that the children were naturally demonstrating the principles of restorative justice. Really? I thought to myself. The two kids who just spent the past 30 minutes disrupting the entire room from working? How? She pointed out the way that these two children then went outside and began cleaning up the bark in front of the stairway together. No one suggested it; they did it on their own.

Ok, so that might have been a coincidence?

But then later, one 6 year-old expressed conscious defiance of our classroom agreements (for her own reasons, of course, and this is a longer story), and she did something similar. When she decided to finally line up after recess, on her way over, she picked up a small piece of trash she found, and showed it to me sympathetically before throwing it away. I offered her some water to drink, which she nobly took from me, not because she was thirsty, I realized, but she because was in the process of re-establishing her relationship to the group. Naturally.

What if I had never noticed these subtle nonviolent acts of community re-integration these children’s hearts told them to do? Would I be less sensitive to them in the long run? Less compassionate? And what about all of the children in the world? Do all adults realize that children are restorative by nature, that we can draw it out of them in positive ways by engaging with them respectfully in their unarticulated process? It is my urgent hope that we all discover this precious piece of knowledge about who we are. For such wisdom, we need not head out to the great universities, but simply turn to the small children around us in humility and nonviolence. Imagine the miracle of it.

Experiment in Nonviolence:

Spend time observing a child in your life today with this lesson about children—and adults—in mind.

The 5 Pillars of Education

1. For education to be meaningful, it has to educate the whole person.

So, what does a whole person consist of? There are different formulas for this which are useful, but one simple one is: We are mind, body, and spirit.

2. We have to teach for the hierarchy of needs.

And not just for the lowest needs, which are the material fulfillment of food, clothing, shelter, and maybe some health care. What are those needs? Well there’s Maslow’s hierarchy, which you are probably familiar with. And then there are our three needs are for autonomy, bonding, and meaning. There is an interesting tension between autonomy and bonding, since we need to be with one another but we also need to be a Self, which is independent.

3. Whatever we teach and however we teach it, it has to be grounded in reality.

It has to be grounded first in concrete nutritional realities but then open itself up to deeper realities. And in this developing new education, one of the things Gandhi said was, “If you do not till the soil you will forget who you are.” Every one of us has to be involved in some way with what he called “bread labor, “ and the best way to do that was to have you tilling the earth and growing things that you yourself eat. An edible schoolyard is a very concrete way of instantiating this principle.

We should not allow intellectual development to separate us, to create a caste, which unfortunately is very common in today’s educational system where immediately we have to be subject to testing and a spectrum of who won, who’s in the middle, and so on. For this reason Gandhi, for example, was constantly stressing the non-development of the intellectual life of the peasants in the villages who had the same intellectual capacity as all of us do. But because they have to follow the bullock all day long, seven days a week in order to make ends meet, their intellect was never developed. Then you had these Brahmins who felt almost infinitely superior to them. So the idea of superiority is another thing we have to avoid in getting students grounded in reality.

4. Cultivate deeper modes of knowing.

We're not saying that we should not teach facts, but we should teach them in such a way that students can pick up on underlying patterns and ask themselves, How does this relate to my challenge as a human being that has to live right now on this planet? We tend to polarize so much that when you talk about understanding or wisdom, people think you mean we are not going to teach facts anymore and students will be adrift in the world (without?) knowing these facts. But what we're saying is that we should use facts as grist for understanding and, ultimately, for wisdom.

5. For students to emerge from our institutions as truly educated, they will need a grasp of the mystery of unity in diversity.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you cannot be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” So far from imagining a world as a place of competition, which through the misuse of Darwin we have done, we have to realize that all this this apparent separateness that we see is really diversity. We need our diversity to discover our unity. They are actually complementary: diversity is more or less on the surface of life, and should be: unity resides on the heart level, which is why Gandhi taught that we need to discover “heart unity” among all our surface differences.

This is an edited version of an a discussion at the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Access the full audio and the transcript.

The Purpose of Education

Ever older I grow, learning along the way. ~ Solon (Greek lawgiver)

When Michael Nagler of the Metta Center for Nonviolence left the teaching profession after nearly half a century, suffering from a slow shock at what the work had become, he appreciated these words of another departing teacher: “I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. … For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, ‘Words Matter and ‘Ideas Matter.’ While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.”

What is the purpose of education? A noble one. To help (primarily young) people continue the process of self-discovery that unfolded (hopefully) in the bosom of the family. From the learning individual’s point of view, it is to discover the meaning of life and who we are within it. By these criteria, our educational systems are failing us badly. They have collapsed in the face of a popular culture dedicated to “entertainment,” leading us down the spiral of competition and violence. Not to dwell on or further analyze this failure, the Metta Center’s virtual ‘school’ is our attempt to fulfill that purpose. We do this, of course, from a specific angle, or viewpoint: nonviolence. And we are constantly bring gratified to observe how well this works. Gandhi said, after all, that “nonviolence is the law of the humans,” the very essence of what it means to be a human being, especially in this violent world. So have we discovered in our own experiments with the truth of nonviolence – the truth that we are all connected in, as King calls it, “a seamless garment of destiny.” And so we strive to help others to discover for themselves as well. Learning nonviolence is in this sense a journey of self-discovery.

This is a slightly edited version of a post that ran at the Metta Center for Nonviolence.