Celebrating Kindness: Falls City Middle School awards students for empathy

By Tyler Dahlgren; Nebraska Council of School Administrators

After 16 years spent working in Omaha Public Schools, Jack Bangert came home to Falls City with a clear idea of the culture he planned to foster at his new school.

That’s not unique for principals entering a new district. Bangert’s model, however, is quite unique. In all the right ways.

“Any principal, when they take a job, they want to create a culture,” Bangert, now in his second year at Falls City Middle School, said. “I knew exactly the kind of culture I wanted to create.”

Throughout his time in OPS, Bangert coached football and worked Dave Rimington’s Lineman Camp, where Midland University head coach Jeff Jamrog said something that continues to have an influence on Bangert’s philosophy to this day.

“He said to the kids ‘I want to see what kind of character you have,’” remembers Bangert. “That had an effect on me. It made me think about how I could apply that way of thought in my own profession.”

Grades are important and academic achievements deserve to be celebrated, but the education of a child goes much further than report cards and GPAs. At FCMS, they take a more wholistic approach to preparing students for life after middle school.

“I wanted to create this all-encompassing culture that really celebrates all the parts of education that are important,” Bangert, a graduate of Falls City Sacred Heart, said.

Kindness, and treating people the right way, he continued, is at the top of the list.

“Kindness is connected to empathy,” Bangert said. “I really don’t care if my kids have great manners. That just makes their parents feel good about themselves. I’m more interested in whether or not they’re empathetic. Those are the skills that are really lacking in our society.”

And those are the skills that FCMS celebrates. Sure, there is still an honor roll and a priority placed on high GPAs and test scores.

“But we’re a middle school, and a middle school, even more than a high school is about developing those social skills,” said Bangert. “We’ve really changed the way we reward kids in our building based on that philosophy.”

Bangert and his staff created a program that rewards a combination of grades, attendance and behavior called “Titanium Tigers”. Every student in the school is part of a database that keeps track of disciplinary referrals, test scores and good deeds.

“That’s what we really celebrate,” Bangert said.

For years and years, Falls City Middle School honored a “Student of the Month”, selected by teachers. There was even a running joke around town that a name change to the “Teachers’ Kids Award” was in order.

Bangert immediately aimed to revolutionize the award into something new and fresh. He harkened back to kindness and its prominent spot in the culture his staff and students were busy implementing.

Before long, the “Act of Kindness Award” program was born, honoring one student from sixth, seventh and eighth-grade each month for embodying the spirit of their school’s new dedication. Instead of teachers selecting the award-winners, nominations are slipped inside envelopes by students throughout the month and then added to a Google Form.

“The kids then vote in their homerooms anonymously on the act of kindness that they believe went above and beyond,” Bangert explained. “After the winners are announced, I buy them lunch and we make a big deal out of it on social media and in the paper.”

Kindness, they’re finding out firsthand at FCMS, has a way of spreading fast. The school created a “Hope Squad” to care for students who might dealing with mental health issues.

“Our kids are just doing a really good job of looking out for each other,” Bangert said.

The staff was even approached by members of the school’s National Junior Honors Society who had grown concerned about an increase in hurtful language being used by students in the school. Their presentation was powerful, and ended with a question for Bangert.

(Above: Principal Jack Bangert with a gift from FCMS NJHS members on Principals Appreciation Day this year.)

“They came to me and said ‘What can you do as a principal? Can you punish our way out of this?’” Bangert said. “I answered, ‘Well, we can’t really punish this completely away, but our culture, and by you coming here today, can make it unacceptable.’ That’s all a direct connection to this act of kindness.”

Bangert’s even been approached by students taking a stand against the bullying of their classmates. It’s reaffirming to see the school embrace kindness, and it’s served as a morale boost throughout a challenging school year. Just this month, he witnessed the boys basketball team picking up trash in the gymnasium after a game without being asked to do so.

“I mean, they’re middle school students, that’s not what they do,” he said. “We have a ways to go and we still have some challenges, but empathy, in my opinion, is just as importance as learning math, social studies and science.”

He’s right. At Falls City Middle School, kindness is more than a goal.

Kindness is a belief. It’s a culture. And it’s taking hold.

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