January 1st. The New Year is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. It is a day of potential – a strange sort of limbo where anything is possible in the coming year. Resolutions are made with the hope that in two months…six months…nine months we will be fitter, stronger, smarter, and healthier. These goals aren’t realized in this limbo, however. They are achieved by small actions every day. Many New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail because we go too big, too fast – quitting anything cold turkey, or jumping into a workout plan leaving you so sore you never go back. The same is true for kindness. A common misconception I notice in my library is that kindness needs to be a big, sweeping, action rather than a daily practice of small, but powerful, moments. It is kind to give a large, expensive gift, but that opportunity may never happen; it is also kind to help tie a shoe.
The New Year provides the opportunity to set a resolution for our classroom around Social-Emotional Learning: Relationship Skills. We are back after the break, it’s a long haul until the next one, and our kids are comfortable with you and each other. It is the perfect time to set expectations and goals for our students around their interactions with others. “Relationship Skills” is often coded language for conflict negotiation, but it is so much more. It is how we treat each other; kindness, helpfulness, empathy, and encouragement are a huge part of this SEL area.
About now you’re probably thinking “How is kindness going to connect to the Iditarod? It’s a race, an intense competition, under brutal conditions. Winner takes all.” True, but kindness isn’t a specific action. It is a lifestyle, a way of moving through the world. Kindness is going to trump competition every time. As 2022 Iditarod Champion Brent Sass says, “I think that the one thing that mushing really sets apart is that we’re out there competing against each other, but we are also competing against the elements and all of the challenges the race provides for us. That bonds us together a little bit more. And, because of that, I feel like no matter how competitive we are we’re always going to help each other, and we’re always going to be decent to each other.”
Iditarod is full of examples of small acts of kindness that have a big impact. In 2012 musher Ed Stielstra dropped one of his mittens after leaving Old Woman Cabin and spent the run to Unalakleet alternating between one hand in the remaining mitten and the other in his pocket! When he arrived the temperature was -36 degrees! Imagine his surprise, and delight, when musher Kelley Griffin came into the checkpoint an hour later with his lost mitten. A small effort to stop and pick up the mitten and carry it along the trail, but it made a huge difference to Ed!
Nearly every year mushers borrow sleds from other competitors. Why would a musher loan a sled? If a sled breaks, the musher will have to scratch, and that is one less competitor to beat to Nome in the quest to win Iditarod, right? Iditarod was founded to spread the joy of dog mushing, to continue the legacy of the sled dog. The best way to do that is to keep as many mushers on the trail as possible. Just this past year Ryan Redington, grandson of the Father of the Iditarod, Joe Redington Sr., loaned a sled to Michelle Phillips. When Phillips came into Nikolai, she discovered her sled was broken and Redington offered her use of his spare sled. As he said, “My sled is healthy and good so I’m happy to help Michelle and I thought it was the right thing to do.” That simple statement says so much. Kindness is always about choosing the right thing to do. He didn’t sacrifice his own needs, or compromise his beliefs in the action, but he did give what he was able in that moment to help another person achieve their goal. Phillips described her response as, “That’s so nice, thank you! Your grandpa would be so proud. That’s the spirit of the Iditarod.” This statement brings up another component ripe for class discussion. What makes the adults around you proud of you? Is getting first place at the top of the podium seen as more or less valuable than lending a helping hand? Adults should encourage the kindness that cultivates a community. In Redington’s case, I think his act of generosity, and contributing to the race in a positive way, is a win.
Mushers also help each other in life threatening situations. In 2018 Jim Lanier was in peril, freezing outside White Mountain, when Scott Janssen came upon his sled. Not only did Janssen stop to help, he scratched alongside Lanier so that he could stay with his fellow musher and friend to make sure he was safe and healthy. Last year during the perilous weather outside White Mountain, Bridgett Watkins and Gerhardt Thiart worked together to build a snow cave to keep warm, and helped each other stay alert and focused as they awaited help.
In 2006 Paul Gebhardt crashed, his gangline snapped, and his dogs got loose. As he chased after them, up came musher Doug Swingley, who was hoping to take his 5th Iditarod win. Swingley could have passed by, eliminating one more competitor, but instead he had Gebhardt hop on the runners of his sled, taking him to Buffalo Camp. From there, Swingley continued on, Gebhardt borrowed a snow machine, found his dogs, righted his sled, and was off down the trail. Swingley didn’t win (that honor went to Jeff King), but he did come in second, with Gebhardt in third! Brent Sass sums up this race philosophy in an analogy from a different sport, “You can find it if you’re playing baseball and you know your competitor hits a home run. You should be proud of that guy. He did a good job. Yeah, it’s not great for your team, but at the same time that should motivate you to be better.” And Sass knows a thing or two about congratulating others. After winning the 2022 race he stayed present to congratulate many of the finishers coming in after him. It was the kind thing to do. In his words, “It’s more than just a competition. It’s a family. We are all friends behind the competition.” No musher knows exactly what will await them when they set out from Anchorage; what they can count on, is the kindness of their fellow mushers to make the frigid Alaskan interior just a little bit warmer.
For more examples check out 2021/2022 Teacher on the Trail Jim Deprez’s post Moments with Mushers: Camaraderie.
What are the small acts your students are doing daily, that they might not even realize are true acts of kindness? Did they find a mitten on the playground and turn it in to lost and found? Did they loan a pencil? Did they say “Thank you” to the lunchroom attendant or bus driver? Did they move over to make room for someone at the lunch table? Did they stand up to unkind words or actions on behalf of another? Often students don’t realize their actions are demonstrating kindness. They think it is normal…and it is, but it is also powerful to point out that what they do every day adds up as a reflection of their character. Create a chart or post-it note board where students can track small acts and see how quickly it fills up. Promoting, acknowledging, and spreading kindness is one New Year’s resolution that will succeed.
Library Learnings: Check out The Great Kindness Challenge . This celebration is held the last week of January as a way to encourage a culture of kindness in school. My buildings celebrate with theme days and kindness activities. The entire week could revolve around Iditarod examples – a day of helping, a day of sharing, a day of encouragement, etc.