Even before she got to kindergarten, she used to hold classes in her bedroom for her teddy bears.
That conviction has never faltered, but there have been times in her 27-year teaching career that she felt ready to quit. It was a simple thank-you note from a student that revived her love of the profession.
“That note made such a difference for me. I thought, ‘what if all students wrote thank-you notes’,” said Forward, who teaches French at Del Norte High School.
Looking around her, she saw teachers struggling to maintain morale under a wave of new regulations and pressures, students coping with test anxiety and bullying. If everyone in the school took just 10 minutes to thank someone for making a positive difference in their life it could do a lot to combat the negativity, she reasoned.
From that inspiration, she created the “1,000 thank yous” and “The Kindness Club,” challenging schools to find opportunities for students and teachers to show gratitude for the positive impact they make. Through the Facebook page “1000 ThankYousChallenge” and the website thekindnessclub.net, which she set up, schools as far away as New Zealand have joined the challenge.
She calls herself “an Activist for Happiness in Schools.”
Forward said she has met with skepticism from some in the academic world who think that time spent writing thank-you notes is a distraction from the learning environment.
But she believes that showing gratitude can have a powerful effect in schools.
“It can really make a difference for kids and adults. Positivity gets passed along and radiates,” she said.
One of her students, Logan Tumlinson, a 10th-grader at Del Norte, said the “thank you” challenge helped him express his feelings and let go of worries.
“Also, it lets me thank the people I care about for the things they do for me,” Tumlinson wrote in an email.
Forward brought that concept to a talk she gave at the KiMo Theatre on April 1 at the TEDxABQ event. The theme was “We’re Done Fooling Around: Let’s talk radical ideas in education.”
TED – which stands for technology, entertainment and design – is owned by the Sapling Foundation, whose goal is to foster the spread of ideas and to provide a platform for thinkers, visionaries and teachers.
The event in Albuquerque featured 10 speakers, three of them teachers. Forward’s talk included the statement, “You can make a difference, you can change the world.”
Although she knew from an early age that she wanted to teach – her parents were both teachers – it wasn’t until high school French class that she knew what she wanted to teach.
Her French teacher’s tales of travel in Europe opened up a whole new world. Venturing outside the United States was an oddity, for her own family, and neighbors in her home town of Sterling Heights, Mich.
Forward went on to study French at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and taught French and English in her first job at a high school in the Detroit suburbs.
It wasn’t until she was in graduate school in Texas that she had the chance to visit Europe herself. A French student she befriended invited her to visit her family near Avignon in southern France.
“It was my first time experiencing France and living with a French family. It was amazing. I was hooked on traveling,” Forward said.
She brought that sense of wonder and amazement at being exposed to another culture to her next teaching job in a small town north of Fort Worth.
“Learning French for them was huge. It was so far out of their world,” she said.
Building on that enthusiasm, she arranged to take several of her students to France and traveled around the country with them, eventually spending time with her friend’s family.
“It was eye-opening seeing these students from a really protected community in Texas grow as they were exposed to something so different,” said Forward.
That experience started her thinking about new approaches to teaching that would help teachers enjoy their jobs more and bring fun into the classroom. She and a fellow teacher started a consulting company. They traveled to teaching conferences, studying new ways to develop curriculum.
On a visit to New Mexico in the mid-1990s, she was so smitten by the blue skies, the mountains and the weather that she moved here a few months later.
Since then, she has taught at East Mountain High School, Highland High School and now at Del Norte High School.
The thank you project and the Kindness Club are just the latest expressions of her activism. The first effort was the “Dream Wall,” inspired by Candy Chang, a New Orleans artist and TED speaker, who created an interactive wall with the words “Before I die I want to …” inviting people to share their hopes and dreams. Forward and students in her French class at Highland created the “Dream Wall” where students could express themselves, in a project called “We all have a voice.”
“Doing this wall showed me that they need places to let students share what they are thinking. The things they wrote were so inspiring,” said Forward.
She hopes her activism will inspire others to follow the example of showing gratitude in many small ways to help create a culture of kindness in their schools.
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