By: Tiffany Wincek, Account Specialist.
Have you ever found a lucky penny on the street? When I was little, someone told me that a found penny is only lucky if it’s heads up. Ever since that moment, whenever I’ve found a penny face down on the ground, I’ve always flipped it over so that at least it would be lucky to the next passerby who noticed it. Over the years, several people asked me what in the world I was doing; why wouldn’t I just pocket the change? To me, the thought of someone else stumbling across a lucky penny made me feel so much richer than one extra cent ever could. I guess this was my first foray into the realm of Pay It Forward.

A few years ago, I again experienced the delights of the Pay It Forward concept when I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts on my way to work. Grabbing coffee in the morning wasn’t momentous by any means, but I was in the middle of a particularly stressful week. I loved teaching Shakespeare to freshmen, but I can’t say that they loved it as much as I did. When I went to pay for my daily dose of caffeine, the cashier at the drive-through window let me know that the person in front of me had already paid for me. Without hesitation, I asked if I could pay for the person behind me. I like to think that the chain kept going. That one simple act of kindness had an acute impact on me.

Dunkin derails the lesson plan…in the best way

By the time I arrived at my classroom, coffee in hand, I had decided to completely change the day’s lesson plan. It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to touting the delights of iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, and Mercutio’s bawdy wordplay; I was, but all that could wait for the next day. Instead, I had my students rearrange their desks into a circle, a request that usually incites panic or delight in freshmen. Next, I had each student pull out a piece of paper and write his or her name at the very top. I gathered the papers, redistributed them, and then asked everyone to write down something nice about the person whose name was written on the paper. A few groans emanated from the room, a setback I had already predicted. I explained that the comment didn’t need to be overly personal and that I knew each student could think of at least one compliment for the rest of their classmates. Certainly, everyone could muster a minimal “you have nice hair” or “I like your shirt.” The grumbles subsided and the ink started flowing. After a minute or so, the students passed the sheets to the right and wrote down something nice for the next person. This continued until the papers had made their way around the entire circle. I then collected the papers…and in Evil Teacher Fashion, didn’t give them back.

I didn’t give them back right away, that is. I did the same activity in the rest of my freshmen classes and then I took all those sheets and made them digital. I didn’t want my students comparing handwriting to try to figure out who had written what, and I honestly wanted to add my own comment to each student’s list. It may have taken hours, but those hours were some of the most rewarding and enlightening of my career. Yes, there were several of the predictable “you have a nice smile” remarks, but my students displayed an awful lot of bravery, too.

One small gesture

compliment sheetsI handed the papers back to my students the next day. As their eyes scanned the sheets, shy laughter bloomed into big smiles. Everybody had a list of reasons to feel good about themselves and the level of empathy and camaraderie in our classroom grew more than I imagined. I’m not saying that everything in the classroom was perfect from that moment on, but it was a starting point and it was a strong one.

Years after my first Pay It Forward classroom experiment, I’ve had many former students tell me that they kept their compliment sheets long after the end of the school year. Some even still have them. It’s pretty incredible how one small gesture or one kind word can impact a person’s life for a day, for a month, for years.


Use our K-12 list of titles to promote mindfulness and empathy in your classroom.