Motivation goes to Beautiful Lengths

Jun. 28, 2013 @ 04:34 PM

Her strawberry blond bob is a reminder of the importance of keeping promises and how far a little motivation can go.

Beth Kinney knew that as the school year progressed her students would lose steam. Between testing and the routine of classes and homework, she knew that they would need that extra push to get them through to the end of the year.

A math and special education teacher at McDougle Middle School, Kinney began her school year in a discussion with her students on how to maintain momentum as the year went on.

“We were having a discussion at the beginning of the year with motivators and a couple of the kids said that Ms. So and So would promise to throw them a party and didn’t follow through,” Kinney said. “The group as a whole needed motivation.”

Kinney thought of a motivator for her students: the opportunity to cut her hair if their grades improved over the course of the year.

“I moved to North Carolina three years ago and let my hair grow out,” Kinney said. “My hair grew out, and I said I was going to donate it to Locks of Love.

“Then I said why don’t I get the kids to do it,” she continued. “I’ll use a point system and they could cut my hair. If they got an 80 or above on a test or quiz they would get points and with every point increase their name would go in the hat.”

Kinney integrated some project-based learning and taught her students probability as grades increased and names were added to the hat. Her 22 math students had more than 240 names in the hat.

“I knew that it (my hair) would be long enough by the end of the year,” Kinney said.

Knowing that the time between tests and the end of the year tends to be a time for review, Kinney used the addition of names in the hat to also teach her students about percentages.

“That’s kind of how I teach,” she said.

Instead of Locks of Love, Kinney’s hair was donated to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths. Similar to Locks of Love, Beautiful Lengths uses donated hair to make free wigs for women who have lost their hair from treatment for breast cancer.

Pantene and the American Cancer Society have partnered for the program and more than 400,000 ponytails have been donated. Pantene has donated 24,000 free, real-hair wigs to the ACS wig banks across the country.

A plus about changing the program was that with Beautiful Lengths the hair is sectioned into four ponytails, giving four of Kinney’s students the chance to cut her locks instead of just one with Locks of Love.

Marit Nelson of Syd’s Hair Shop donated her time to supervise the cutting of Kinney’s hair. Kinney had her hair cut by the four students in her class who had gained the most points, Jonathan Sepulveda, Zachery White, Nicholas Fuller and Kyaw Htay.

“It was a special time. They were so excited. Some of them were nervous.”

Kinney said that she had to reassure some of her female students who were concerned about her cutting her hair that she knew she was doing the right thing.

“It’s hair,” she said with a smile. “It’ll grow. I’m doing something nice for someone else.”

Part of Kinney’s empathy for the people she was helping came from her own experience with breast cancer. She didn’t lose her hair but it thinned and became very dry as a result from her treatment.

“I took oral chemotherapy for almost five years,” she explained. “I stopped the medication on Halloween so we had a celebration.”

Kinney shared her triumph with her students. One of them even brought her a breast cancer pin to wear on her shirt.

“I’m in excellent health,” Kinney said with a smile. “And five years cancer free. I know I was very lucky. I know many people who go through worse. When you look at what others went through, mine wasn’t that bad.”

Kinney said that she was one of three teachers at McDougle Middle diagnosed with breast cancer within a few months.

“Mine was caught at Stage 0,” she said. “They keep changing the mammogram minimum age. They were saying 45. I had a mammogram at 40 years old and it was clear. I had another at 41 and it was horrible.”

What started out as a way to motivate her students turned into a much larger lesson on how to treat other people.

“They really, truly made me proud. They wanted to do better and the other part of that is that I kept my word to them,” said Kinney. “I’ve always known that motivators work. It’s just finding out what works. I spend a lot of time building a rapport with my kids.

“This was a real world, social and project-based learning,” she continued. “It’s doing something kinds for someone else. It pretty much covered a lot.”

After having her hair cut, Kinney talked to Nelson, who later styled Kinney’s hair, and found out some interesting parallels between the two.

“I found out that she interned at McDougle Elementary, that she was working on a teaching degree while working at the salon and that we were from the same hometown in Maine,” Kinney said. “It’s like it was meant to happen that way.”

With this as an example of how she teaches her students, it’s easy to understand how Kinney was given the Exceptional Children’s Teacher of the Year Award for Excellence this year by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Among stacks of books, disassembled classrooms and childless hallways, Kinney smiled and said, “I’m already planning for next year.”