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FEATURE

Secret Agents of Kindness

A teacher gave students a simple task: Be kind, but selfless. The results illustrate the contagious effects of humanity.
ILLUSTRATION BY Shaw Nielsen

“Kindness,” Mark Twain said, “is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Acts of kindness, however small, also have a way of dissolving the barriers that isolate us within our own worldviews. In this way, kindness benefits both the giver and the receiver.

It was an intrinsic understanding of this concept that attracted Erin Mangahis to Secret Kindness Agents, a program founded by a fellow educator, Ferial Pearson. 

Mangahis has spent almost half her life as a teacher and nearly all of those years teaching English language arts at Patrick Henry High School in San Diego. She’s an astute observer of her students’ ability to practice inclusiveness and understanding of one another’s unique identities. And, as a scholar of written and verbal language, she has always made it a priority to allow her students opportunities to deepen their vocabulary of awareness and empathy.

When she learned about Pearson’s program two years ago, Mangahis knew immediately that she wanted to implement it in her own classroom. 

 

Recruiting Agents

The idea behind Secret Kindness Agents, which Pearson details in her TEDx Talk and in a book she has written about the program, is both simple and profound: to perform an anonymous act of kindness every day and, thereby, spread kindness throughout the community. Anonymity is a key element of the program, as it shifts the focus from the self to others and thus allows the “agents” of kindness to remove themselves from the equation—in effect, to become selfless, which is the DNA of kindness. Essentially, the program creates a reverse-selfie effect: a camera facing out instead of facing in. Agents are able, in some cases for the first time, to see others when they hold up the lens.

Each year, Mangahis begins the program by showing Pearson’s TEDx Talk to the students and having a group discussion about the program. “We then write down a list of about 10 to 15 potential positive benefits of Secret Kindness Agents and also make a list of the potential risks,” she says.

Ferial Pearson is a nationally recognized and award-winning high school teacher and an instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska Omaha. To learn more about Pearson and the Secret Kindness Agents program, watch her TEDx Talk.

Most students agree the program will make the school a more positive place. Their assessment of the risks ranges from worrying that their faces might hurt from smiling too much to a more serious concern that their acts of kindness might be rejected or that they might embarrass themselves. 

The next steps involve the students brainstorming anonymous acts of kindness, or “jobs,” and selecting Secret Agent names for themselves. Mangahis provides a list of possible jobs but lets her students refine, add to or delete from this list. The jobs the students create run the gamut of kind, selfless acts. Some tasks are as simple as picking up trash around the school and holding open a classroom door. Others require more effort, such as sharing lunch with someone the Secret Agent might not ordinarily talk to or writing letters of appreciation to school staff members who are rarely recognized for their work. 

“One student made a job out of taking his friends to a school sporting event—girls’ basketball—that doesn’t get the support and crowds of other sports,” Mangahis says. Other jobs have included making teacher-appreciation posters, placing positive messages on Post-its on bathroom mirrors and smiling at everyone the Secret Agent sees. 

The jobs that take the Secret Agents far outside of their comfort zones—for example, striking up a conversation with somebody new—come with the highest risk and vulnerability. These are also the jobs with the highest rewards, notably the sheer happiness of brightening someone else’s day. 

After selecting their jobs and verbally committing to honor the jobs they are about to do, students perform their acts of kindness every day for a week. At the end of the week, they write reflections on how their jobs have affected them and those around them. They then select new jobs for the next week and begin the process again. 

“They become giddy with excitement for their jobs,” Mangahis says, “and how much fun they are having. I have been surprised by the ease they had with the program and just how much it has unified us and made us a cohesive group.”

 

Kindness Spreads

The effect of these acts of kindness on the school community has been “tremendously positive,” Mangahis says. After successfully piloting the program with only her seniors in 2016, she extended Secret Kindness Agents to her juniors the next year. “It helps them to become aware of and more sensitive to the needs of others. They see beyond themselves, and it reframes their view of the world.”

My kind acts are not just one ripple but a rock skipping on water, radiating good deeds to multiple people who can also create those ripples.

Bella Franco, a senior in Mangahis’ class, took her participation to a whole new level in an act of meta-kindness. Mangahis keeps a Twitter board in the classroom—a hard-copy version of the social media site—and Bella created a page for that board, which she called The Henry Effect.

“I followed the most random people from Patrick Henry [High School] that I’ve only talked to a few times, or some who showed great enthusiasm and empathy toward others on campus,” Bella says. “I then posted a picture of the student and a short caption acknowledging and appreciating their kind acts.” 

In this way, Bella followed kindness with kindness, and paying it forward filled her with joy.

“Once I started my acts of kindness, I started feeling complete,” she says. “I felt happy and I felt that I gained happiness by making others happy.”

Giving the students ownership of the program and allowing them to decide on their own acts of kindness are integral to the program’s success, according to Mangahis, who is quick to praise Pearson for designing Secret Kindness Agents to be very flexible and easy to adapt.

“It is extremely moldable and can be implemented at any grade,” she says. “It transcends one teacher or one curriculum, which is a big part of its beauty.”

This is also what allows anyone to create a Secret Kindness Agents program in their own community. “It’s a discussion you can have with your kids or your book club, your family members,” Mangahis says. “ You commit to doing acts of kindness and talk about it together. Sharing the experience radiates kindness that travels throughout the community.”

The kindness extended to others then moves forward on its own, creating a ripple effect.

As Amelia Lanning, another senior in Mangahis’ class, puts it, “My kind acts are not just one ripple but a rock skipping on water, radiating good deeds to multiple people who can also create those ripples.

“Secret Kindness Agents have taken my shallow attitude and narrow mind into something much greater. I would go day to day keeping to myself and only thinking about waking up and getting my day over with,” Amelia reflects. “After being a part of the Secret Kindness Agents, I have developed an overall sense of happiness. I enjoy waking up every day in hopes that I will make someone’s day. Noticed or not, my simple kind acts have made me a happier person.”

This story was written in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Ginsberg is an award-winning author, book reviewer, workshop leader and contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. She lives and writes in San Diego, California.

Secret Agent Steps to Kindness

Step 1 Write down a list of about 10 to 15 potential positive benefits of Secret Kindness Agents, and make a list of the potential risks.

 

Step 2 Have students brainstorm anonymous acts of kindness, or jobs, and select Secret Agent names for themselves.

 

Step 3 Once students select their jobs and verbally commit to honor those jobs, have them perform their acts of kindness every day for a week.

 

Step 4 At the end of the week, have students write reflections on how their jobs have affected them and those around them.