COE Professor Receives High Teaching Honor
When Ferial Pearson taught at Omaha South High School she challenged her students with a question: Do modest acts of kindness and compassion have the power to change someone’s life? She believes so.
Pearson is a 2016 recipient of the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Center Inspirational Teacher Award. The award recognizes some of the country's most influential and inspirational teachers.
“It really is validating (to receive the award),” she says. “But I don’t think I am any better than any of the teachers who were nominated. I am just lucky that I had a student who felt strongly enough to take the time to nominate me.”
The “secret kindness agents” started as a class project when she was teaching English at Omaha South High School. A small movement began, and now there are secret kindness agents all over Nebraska and beyond.
“There’s even a 13-year-old boy in California,” said Pearson. “He named himself ‘Agent Gemini.’ He likes to email me and keep me up to date on the things he’s doing to help people.”
I don’t think I am any better than any of the teachers who were nominated. I am just lucky that I had a student who felt strongly enough to take the time to nominate me.
- Ferial Pearson
In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect Award. A year later she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2015, she was named one of “Ten Outstanding Young Omahans” by the Omaha Jaycees.
The story of the secret kindness agents continues to spread. Students at Loup City High School in Loup City, Nebraska were inspired after watching her TEDxUNO speech last year. They wanted Pearson to come to their school, so they wrote up a mini-grant to cover her travel costs.
After speaking to the entire student body, more people began to reach out.
“They would ask me, ‘how do I become a secret kindness agent?’” she said.
Pearson estimates there are students at over 30 schools across the country, from elementary all the way up to universities, performing random acts of kindness. Some of them are rogue, anonymous operations. Others are organized movements by clubs and student groups.
Not everyone has the same opportunities when it comes to education. According to Pearson, when students show compassion for each other, it can bring success to those who are disadvantaged.
“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”
To read the full nomination letter or to view the list of all recipients, visit The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards 2016 Awardees website.