Disarming Love

The images are first chilling and then touching—a large gun, and then a long embrace.

The surveillance video released last weekend has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. It shows a scene from May in which Keanon Lowe, a security guard and football coach at Parkrose High School, took a loaded shotgun from then-18-year-old Angel Granados-Diaz and then wrapped him in a hug.

Granados-Diaz planned to kill himself that day—at school rather than at home so that his mother would not find his body. Lowe, having heard about “suicidal statements” made by Granados-Diaz, showed up in the student’s classroom right before Granados-Diaz arrived, carrying the gun under a long coat. Granados-Diaz tried to fire the gun on himself, but it did not discharge.

“I saw the look in his face, look in his eyes, looked at the gun, realized it was a real gun, and then my instincts just took over,” Lowe said. “I lunged for the gun, put two hands on the gun.”

As the recently released video shows, Lowe removed the gun from Granados-Diaz and handed it off to another teacher nearby. Lowe then wrapped his arms around the student, who began to cry. For a few moments, Granados-Diaz struggled against the embrace of Lowe, but then returned it.

In those moments, said Lowe, they had a conversation.

“Obviously, he broke down and I just wanted to let him know that I was there for him,” Lowe said. “I told him I was there to save him—I was there for a reason and that this is a life worth living.”

Lowe’s response is a striking model of character in at least two way. First, he showed the courage to act without thought for his own safety. Concerned for the well-being of Granados-Diaz and the other students, Lowe deliberately put himself in harm’s way for their sake.

And then, rather than responding with force and censure—which would have been understandable given the degree of risk Lowe had just faced—Lowe extended compassion and care. Granados-Diaz would later receive legal penalties associated with weapons possession, but in this vulnerable moment, Lowe led with love.

Every teacher interacting with a student who is breaking the rules faces this same double crossroad. Will we have the courage to confront the misbehavior—to call it out, to disarm it—for the child’s sake and others’? And at the same time, will we have the compassion to see beyond disturbing conduct and embrace the student who acts out from a place of pain? To keep showing love even when a child tries to push us away?

Lowe would not have been a good security guard had he failed to act on the threat; it is not loving to ignore destructive behavior. At the same time, the life of Granados-Diaz might be radically different had Lowe not responded with powerful, inescapable kindness.

Students are watching the educators around them. They imitate the way we treat our colleagues—and also the way we respond to those who act out. May we model both courage and compassion as we engage the often-hurting students around us.



On School Grounds: Transcript of Interview with Richard Fournier on Rural Public High Schools

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This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 25, 2019, with education researcher Richard Fournier. He contributed the chapter on rural public high schools to The Content of Their Character, a major research project launched by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. The interview was conducted by CultureFeed Editor Joanna Breault.

Joanna Breault: Today I’m speaking with Richard Fournier, who is the managing director of partnerships at Transforming Education. Previously, Richard was a research and technical assistance associate at the Education Development Center, a project scholar for UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a high school history teacher, a licensed superintendent in Massachusetts, and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Lasell College. Richard is also currently a doctoral candidate at Boston University. Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools from public schools, both urban and rural, to private schools, both religious and non-religious, to home schools and others. Richard was one of those researchers, and he and his team focused on rural public schools.

Thank you, first of all, for being with us today. We’re really looking forward to chatting with you. I know that you studied six different schools. I wondered if you could give me a quick overview of what makes a school a “rural school.” What characteristics did those schools that you studied share in common?

Richard Fourier: Sure, and thanks for having me. There are lots of different definitions really of what constitutes a rural school, and in some cases, some schools technically aren’t rural in the eyes of the federal government, but they still claim to be rural and identify as being rural. The definitions that I used are really through the National Center of Education Statistics—NCES—and really it goes, generally speaking, it’s really just the distance from an urban area, and so all of my schools were considered rural. There are some rural schools that are considered “fringe,” which are way out there, and some are “remote,” which are also way out there, and some are more considered “towns,” but in general it’s an area that is usually a certain distance from—pretty far away from—an urban area. It’s usually relatively small. More and more in certain states like in Maine, for example, we’re seeing consolidated districts. So you might have a larger school or high school that’s made up of four or five different rural communities all into now one school. And so, geographically it spans the whole US. So you could be looking at something in the deep woods of Maine. You can be looking at something that’s in the Midwest—completely open fields. And as such, the demographics are varied as well. So sometimes you have, in many areas, a homogenous, all-white student population, but in the other parts of the country, you might have Native American students, you might have students with large English language learner population, African American students, and a number of other areas and race and ethnic backgrounds, and lots of variety with social economic background as well.

JB: Okay. So when you were writing about rural schools, I know you wrote about three different spheres of “moral obligation” that you observed in rural public schools. Can you explain what you mean by that term and describe those three different spheres?

RF: Sure. The three that I had identified were global citizenship, religious responsibility, and military service. And I think what I really kind of intended by that, by talking about moral obligation, was simply that one common thread that I saw in all these rural schools was this sense of—I’m generalizing, but among many of the students and staff—the central obligation for those three areas. In particular, military service was a fairly common thread, whether it was actually going into the military or just simply being explicit about showing support for the military. So a lot of these schools, if not all of them, as soon as you walk in the building you see, obviously, the American flag but also either monuments or some kind of memorial or some kind of artifact that celebrates either staff members or former students who had served in the military or things that are currently going on with the military. I’ve seen in my visits lots of ROTC folks that were in there as well, military recruiters. So the communities are generally very supportive, not shy about showing that support, and many of the families and the students are connected to the military. And so even those that aren’t are usually pretty respectful about that.

Many of these communities tended to either be engaged with different religious affiliations or at least pretty supportive of it—to the extent that sometimes it even crossed the sort of “public school boundary,” where there was talk and discussion about it within the school itself.

And then global citizenship: In many ways that was actually a moral obligation on the part of staff. So a lot of teachers felt like just by nature of being in a rural community, where you’re maybe not as connected with diverse resources—a diverse group of folks that you might find the more urban environment and all the things that come with that—that there was a need among staff to be sure to promote this global citizenship idea, so that students maybe didn’t feel so isolated in those particular areas, if that makes sense.

JB: Yeah, so sort of wanting to expand students’ understanding or exposure beyond their small town?

RF: Yeah, exactly. And the internet’s a really great way to do that, but that also means certain social media literacy and guardrails around that that every school faces. But I think a lot of the staff that I talked to felt like it was especially important in those particular areas, because for some kids, it really was hard for them to reach beyond those boundaries, because they’re not in an urban environment, so they can’t walk out of the school and suddenly see lots of different people from different backgrounds. It’s a lot more homogeneous at many of the schools that I was in.

JB: So what were some of the moral ideals that were embraced by the communities that you studied and which of those do you feel like might be more unique to a rural setting?

RF: I’ll list a couple. I’m not sure how unique they are, but there’s a couple. There’s one in particular that might be. Hard work—working hard. This sense of self-reliance—you know, if you make a mistake, it’s on you and you need to fix it. Service, not just service in the military sense, but service to those who are less fortunate. And that kind of goes along with compassion and care for the community at large. And then just generally respect.

So I don’t want to make a claim that any of these are unique only to rural schools, but I will say that I think that aspect around community is definitely very much emphasized in the rural sector. I think there’s, with many the folks that I talked to, there’s a sentiment, a sense, that—particularly around the communities that were a little lower on the SES (the social economic scale)—the sense of, We might not have a lot around this community in terms of wealth or even, in some cases, resources, but we are a community and we’re going to support each other and make sure that we stick together. So the support is there. And as a result, I think I saw a lot of students, who if there’s a food drive for a certain cause—for a family that lost their house in the fire and then has no money, or maybe one of the students or parents came down with cancer or something like that and needs money for hospital services—the communities really rallied.

And again, that’s not to say that doesn’t happen in urban or suburban neighborhoods, but I saw it as just such a sense of pride for a lot of the rural staff and communities there, and I thought that was pretty interesting.

And then, I think the sense of self-reliance which I think sort of stems from this, very much rooted in the rural, blue-collar lens of life, that even, to some extent, maybe that whole “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality—and it certainly isn’t a bad thing—but I saw that sense with a lot of with a lot of the teachers but mostly a lot of the students and the parents especially.

And sometimes those things were so distinct that I wasn’t sure if certain parents were being serious with me when they were talking about certain beliefs about discipline, for example. So very distinct from some of the other areas throughout the country that I’ve worked with.

JB: What you were saying about school, the community, kind of is a segue into another question I had about this idea of “school as family” and the dynamic of pitching in to help. I know you mentioned if somebody gets cancer and food drives. Are there any other examples that stick out to you of what that looks like, the idea of “school as family”?

RF: Yeah, and I think that this kind of goes along with how teachers and administrators can also create sort of a sense of belonging. Sometimes I think it’s intentional, sometimes I don’t, but the bottom line is that because the communities tend to be relatively small, there is a very clear trend of students who have noted seeing their teachers involved in lots of other aspects of their lives—for example, church. They go to church and they see their teacher or their principal. And because it’s a smaller community, many of the students there go to the same churches or the same church. There might be other outside activities. Also there’s a sort of intergenerational aspect to rural communities where often there are several teachers on staff who themselves attended that particular school. Sometimes administrators too. And so often, you’ll have a teacher who’s been in that community their whole lives and they know their students’ parents and maybe even their parents. So as a result, there’s all this intertwined dynamic and relationships, and so I think for many students and teachers, [it] does, for those reasons, feel like a big sort of family. People know each other; they know their pasts, their reputations. And sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not, but I think all those things add up to this feeling that it’s really one big family.

JB: I actually had that question: Does that make it difficult for kids and adults, if they make mistakes, to kind of start afresh?

RF: Yeah, I think so. I grew up in Maine and I grew up a couple streets away from Stephen King, the horror author. And Stephen King—I bring this up because he used to write a lot or has written a lot about the dark sides of growing up in a sort of rural community. And one of the dark sides, I think, is the fact that it’s really tough for you or your family to escape a certain reputation. I mean, part of that’s just human nature, but because it’s a small community it’s hard to, as you said, start with a blank slate. And so I’ve talked to some students that really even in the middle school years that—or early high school years—that certainly felt that. I also think you have a lot of educated adults in these buildings who recognize that and try to usurp that in some way and alleviate the stress that can come with those kinds of reputations. So it’s probably a mix, but I do think you see it there a little more than you might in other schools, because you have so many teachers and administrators who’ve been there their whole lives and whose families they know. So that can make it a little difficult.

JB: Is there a positive bent to that in terms of wanting to make good choices because you and your family are known?

RF: Yeah no, absolutely—I think there’s a lot of positive to it. You know, you might be more willing to go out on the limb and put in extra time with a student because you know their family. You might have more context and sympathy or empathy for what they’re going through, because you know their family. And certainly, yeah, you might have some students that really want to live up to higher expectations because they think their family’s reputation or their reputations are on the line. And so yeah, I shouldn’t have just focused on the negative; I do you think there are a lot of positives for that too. But I think that can be tough for students if it’s the other way around,and they have a reputation for being… if their older brothers were troublemakers, and their father was a troublemaker, or mother, and then they’re coming in as an average student, they might have that following them around.

JB: Are there any other ways that that dynamic of everybody knowing everybody, “community as family,” “school as family” relates to character formation in particular?

RF: Well, I think it strengthens whatever moral ideals or obligations exist. I think it just reinforces them on a regular basis, because it’s a lot harder to deviate from those norms if you can’t find a separate group or subgroup of folks who are supportive of that. So for example, if you’re in the rural community and you happen to be a student that does not fit with the regular norms—and it could really look like lots of different things. Maybe we’re talking about a student who just doesn’t want to engage in many of the common activities, whether it’s sports or outdoors activities or whatever—it might be hard for them to find a particular kind of group to be part of. A student who’s gay or part of the LGBTQ community—it might be tough to find support within that community if there aren’t other folks in that community that are talking about those issues, providing support for those issues. And I don’t think it’s always… it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s just this common bias or bigotry in those communities, it’s just that there might not be an outlet for that particular student, because maybe that hasn’t been an explicit before.

And so anyway, the point is I think that everybody knowing everybody just reinforces the norms, for better or worse. I think in a good way though, if everybody knows that “hey, when someone is in trouble, you need to put some extra effort in to help them,” you’re probably going to be following that, because everyone around you is doing the same thing—your teachers, your parents your friends. So I think it can work definitely for positive, and then maybe in some cases for negative as well.

JB: So I remember you mentioning in your chapter that it was common for teachers and administrators to kind of reach beyond their teaching duties to support their students. Can you describe some of the ways that they did that?

RF: Yeah, and I’ve seen this happen in urban communities as well. But again, I think that that idea of it feeling like a large family and everyone knowing each other—or many people knowing each other in the community—in my observations, has led to lots of teachers doing a lot of extra things to make sure students had what they needed. So that might have meant that teachers did more home visits to check in with students who might not have had a lot of money, or maybe their parents were dealing with drug addiction. Counselors in the school and teachers checking up on students literally at their homes down the street, whose parents might be addicted to heroin and they haven’t been showing up at school. You know, people in the school making sure that extra food that’s left over at lunchtime is given to students who aren’t going to have anything to eat that night. Doing things like the food drives and just making people generally aware of those kinds of issues that people are dealing with.

So I think in that sense—again, I do see that in the urban schools as well of course—but I think there’s something a little interesting about the rural communities where maybe because they’re a little smaller, it’s a little bit easier for educators to… it’s a little more in front of their faces, because they might know that person’s family from when they were in school. There’s some deeper-rooted connections there maybe. It’d be something interesting to explore.

JB: Yeah, that is interesting. So along the lines of teachers, another thing that you talked about was kind of the willingness that teachers had to engage on controversial topics, although they were often reluctant to weigh in on what they thought was right and wrong. So why do you think that is? Like where does that reluctance come from, and then if they don’t want to weigh in on moral issues, does that mean they’re not part of shaping student character, or are they doing that in a different way?

RF: Yeah, I mean I think this hits at a larger topic about character development and social-emotional learning and all those areas. I think we have a public school system in our country that prides itself on educators staying away from what I think is usually referred to as “moral education;” instead thinking about content, there’ll be critical thinking skills. But when it comes to issues of morality—in politics, frankly—exposingstudents, especially if you’re teaching civics or history or things like that, to some extent, but not having a common moral foundation for what’s right and what’s wrong.

So what happens is either A. Teachers do express these things, but they could be very different from the teacher down the hall, or B. They try to stay neutral. In both cases though, regardless of those teachers’ intentions, the students are always going to be influenced by the actions and the words of those two teachers. So whether you try to be neutral or not, you’re going to be influencing, to some extent, the way in which the student thinks about the world, sees the world, interacts with the world, and whatever social-emotional skills or mindsets that they have. There’s going to be some range of influence that that teacher has on them.

So I think in the communities for this study, what I was actually referring to in that case was the fact that I talked to a lot of teachers who, especially the ones who weren’t from the community, tend to be a little bit more on the liberal range in our political spectrum. And so especially in the social sciences, but sometimes in the sciences, there are certain topics that came up they knew were going to be hot-button topics for those particular communities, especially the communities that tend to be a little more conservative.

So two issues that come up to mind: One, thinking about current political issues and thinking about other cultures, and domestic and foreign international terrorism. I had one teacher that told me, for example, that he had a group of students that basically just would say things like, If someone is Muslim, they’re definitely a terrorist; there’s no question about that. Now those comments probably just come from that kid’s parents. But the teacher I think felt like it was hard to argue. I think he struggled in how to deal with it because on the one hand, he didn’t want to insult the kid’s parents; on the other hand, he wanted to open the student’s eyes to the possibility that that wasn’t true or isn’t true. But he mentioned to me that he also just felt a little bit outnumbered because he has a community of folks in his particular situation that he felt probably would

disagree with him. The other issue is, in the sciences, talking about evolutionary theory and versus you know… I forget the term but I think it’s something design?

JB: Intelligent design.

RF: Intelligent design. And then other topics that might come up or interfere with students’ specific beliefs when they’re in, again, a more religiously oriented, conservative community. But I also spoke to teachers who are really successful in balancing both of those worlds and approaching it in such a way that students could respect, and in some cases agree, with maybe their parents’ or their community’s beliefs, but also wrap their heads around these new concepts that they were learning in school. But I think all these things are, you know, a little bit difficult for teachers to grapple with at times. Some teachers just didn’t care and were saying, No, I’m going to teach it this way and you know, students can make their own conclusions but I’m not going to avoid these topics because I think that could get some complaints. And other teachers try to play a little more safer.

JB: Do the teachers who are from the communities tend to play it safer? Or is there no correlation?

RF: Just anecdotally, just from my own observations, usually in in a particular community that happened to be more conservative, usually the teachers who had been there are also in alignment with that philosophy. And then there were a couple towns where clearly there were still some very deep-rooted issues around race and racial justice. I mean, they came up a lot. And I wasn’t exploring that aspect too much so I didn’t go into a lot of detail in it, but it was clear to me that while in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, you might go into a school where they’re talking about how race might play out in the classroom or various dynamics, in some of these towns, we were still having conversations about lynchings that took place in the early nineteen hundreds; I mean, these are deep-rooted topics that people were sort of aware of, that may or may not be discussed. It was definitely another area that I’d like to explore more if I had the time.

JB: Well, we kind of touched on this a little bit but just one thing that kind of stood out to me as I read your chapter, over and over again, was the importance of athletics in school community, kind of the connection between school and the community beyond the school—that connection a lot of times is forged through athletics. So what does that mean for kids who aren’t athletic or maybe aren’t even interested in sports? Did you observe anything along those lines?

RF: Yeah, I actually expected that, just from pop-culture, stereotypes, movies, I thought that you’re going to find a bunch of students that weren’t involved in sports being like shunned or outcasts. But I really didn’t find that at all. I mean, students actually, these days, with the advent of the internet and all the connections they have in social media, found plenty of other… lots of kids were involved in gaming and have their own little clubs there. Some kids were involved in, maybe not like generic sports, but outdoors-type activities like hunting or fishing or camping or hiking or whatever that they could they could do outside of that. Some students—a lot of students actually—have vocations they were obsessed with, or passionate about I should say, before even graduating. So some kids would go to school and right after that go and do their job as a mechanic, for example. So I mean, I think they could still have that school spirit and that pride without necessarily being involved in sports. I say that, but I also do think like many schools, sports tend to lend itself, athletics can lend itself, to being more seen as popular in the eyes of teachers, administrators, and the community at large. And some of that sentiment definitely still existed with the students, and I think you’d find that in the urban schools as well.

JB: Right. Well this has bene really interesting. Is there anything else that you can think of that you think would be important for the wider community to know about rural schools as we wrap up? Anything else that came to mind?

RF: I think just if anyone is listening to this who hasn’t been in a rural school before, I think just acknowledging that there’s over 12 million students in the US who are attending rural schools. It’s just important to know that that’s occurring and that we need to think more about these students when we think about education policy, which I think tends to be weighing itself more heavily in favor of what’s going on in urban schools. And then secondly that rural schools are having a lot of success in many areas, but they also have unique struggles that we don’t see in urban areas, and so when we think about those education policies, we need to consider that they’re not always the same issues. They might have an issue with teacher retention or teacher hiring but for different reasons than in urban districts. I guess I’d leave with that.

JB: Thank you for your time today. I really appreciate it.

RF: Thank you.

JB: All right. Bye.

To Carry and Be Carried

Teachers are no strangers to heavy lifting. They support one another in challenging times, and they shoulder the burdens of their students on a daily basis. For one Ohio teacher, carrying a student became literal.

Ten-year-old Ryan King is accustomed to missing out on activities. Born with spina bifida, she is confined to a wheelchair. When her class field trip to a fossil bed by a river was recently announced, Ryan hoped she could go, but her mother was dubious. The fossil bed isn’t wheelchair accessible, and the only alternative was to carry her.

Just like other preteens, Molly craves adventure and independence from her mom—two things that were in short supply. This field trip was another reminder of her limitations.

In stepped teacher Jim Freeman, a teacher at Molly’s school. Freeman doesn’t oversee her class, but he was familiar with her smile from the hallway. For an hour, Freeman carried the 50-pound girl in a backpack carrier in 90-degree heat. Ryan had a wonderful time and was happy that for once, her classmates envied her.

“A little time out of my day and a little extra effort can give Ryan something to remember,” Freeman told Good Morning America.

Freeman well sums up the cost of serving another—in so many cases, it’s just a little time and a little extra effort. Call it what you will—kindness, compassion, generosity—this trait has the potential to radically change the experience of another person.

Extra time and effort is something most teachers provide almost instinctively. They give haircuts before fifth-grade graduations; they read to their students in the evenings on Facebook Live. And students benefit. But what if, beyond receiving a new haircut, a boost in literacy, or a piggyback ride over rough terrain, students are also receiving something even more powerful? What if the behavior they see impacts the people they become?

In the book The Content of Their Character, James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson call this phenomenon “catching.” Values and behavior are contagious. As teachers model character, the students in their lives mirror it.

Consider the story of Sophia Alvarado. Melody Harbour, a special education teacher’s aide at Sophia’s school, was recently diagnosed with stage three lung cancer. According to KCBD-TV in Lubbock, Texas, Harbour endured 30 rounds of radiation and four rounds of chemotherapy. When Sophia, a third grader, saw that Harbour’s hair had fallen out, she decided to cut off her own hair in solidarity.

“This little girl is why I have to do this every day. There’s a lot of them in there,” Harbour told KCBD-TV, pointing at the school. “I can’t just sit at home and dwell on my problems.”

It’s clear that Sophia, with her gift to Harbour, chose to focus on the needs of others as well.

In another recent situation, a teacher’s asthma attack was averted by the care and quick thinking of a student. Ten-year-old Nevaeh Woods was volunteering in Kim Rosby’s kindergarten classroom when Rosby was suddenly struggling to breathe and unable to speak. Rosby held up her car keys to indicate that her inhaler was in her locked car; Woods responded by seizing the keys and running to retrieve it. Her quick thinking saved Rosby’s life.

So accustomed are they to giving, teachers don’t expect to be recipients of students’ consideration. But the experience is sweet. Beyond the actual benefit is the knowledge that one’s own example may have contributed to the child’s action.

A child’s instinct toward kindness is either reinforced or undermined by the messages and examples around her. And the teachers who “carry” their students—both literally and figuratively—are helping shape “carriers” without saying a thing. Some children won’t bear the burdens of others until adulthood, but some will bear burdens now—sometimes even those of adults.

When Discipline Divides

Like every pairing, the teacher-principal relationship includes tension. And according a recent survey by the Education Week Research Center, that discord is overwhelmingly based on one main issue: how discipline is handled within the school. 54 percent of teachers and 24 percent of principals cited student discipline as the major source of friction.

Principals have faced pressure from outside of the school—from both state and federal authorities—to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Meanwhile, teachers who are required to meet educational testing standards often struggle with the distraction that behavioral issues represent. Handling an unruly student without principal support can mean lost instructional time.

The tension can be exacerbated by the adoption of new policies without adequate teacher training. Lack of communication about who will be handling what—and what the consequences of misbehavior will be—can leave teachers feeling unclear on their recourse for student infractions. According to Education Week, strengthening that communication and, more generally, the relationships between school leadership, teachers, and parents, could go a long way to ease some of the tension revealed by the survey.

Many teachers cite tardiness and skipped classes as some of the big problems they face. And those are real challenges, as being present in class is necessary to mastering material and proving that mastery on a test.

But these aren’t the only issues teachers mention as problematic. They’re bothered by dress code violations, incessant arguing, being sworn at. Teacher objections to this kind of disrespect reflects an expectation that at least accompanies—if not exceeds—the desire that classroom culture be conducive to achievement.

“School is not just about education; we want them to be caring, responsible adults one day, citizens who respect people just because they’re people,” said Amanda Johns, who teaches fourth grade at Kennedy Elementary in Manistee, Michigan. “It’s about the common good. How does it impact the common good when a kid can get away with saying ‘you’re an idiot’ or ‘you’re so stupid’?”

Like Johns, most adults share a standard of not only academic success but personal conduct. Another term for that standard of conduct—one that respects others and upholds the common good— is “character.”

Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy and history at the City University of New York, told Education Week that discipline will be an issue to grapple with at every kind of school in every era. Even in the 1950s, she said, journalists were reporting a crisis of discipline.

Kafka added that “it may help to remember that discipline isn’t an extra thing schools have to deal with that gets in the way of teaching core subjects. Discipline is a core subject.”

This thinking—discipline as a core subject—may sound radical to overloaded educators, but it has the power to transform school culture. Rather than see discipline as a distraction to learning, educators might view a well-structured discipline process as intrinsic to the nurture of successful students—as important as math or history class. As veteran superintendent CultureFeed contributor Angus McBeath would frequently tell teachers, character formation isn’t in addition to the work; it is the work.

If discipline is concerned with how to respond to wrongdoing, character formation is its complement—focused on teaching students to do right. Teachers and principals can reduce the need for discipline by intentionally shaping character—explicitly teaching it, carefully modeling it, and seeking ways for students to practice it. Perhaps, with this common goal in mind, relationships between teachers and principals may even be strengthened and smoothed.



Good Citizens Understand Community, Engage Actively

This article was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been slightly edited for length. 

Except for small groups of hermits, found here and there throughout human history, most human persons have lived in community since the earliest times. Perhaps it was first necessary for survival, but throughout the ages humans have formed communities and lived social lives for comfort and fulfillment.  

Customs, manners, and laws must be established if communities are to survive and flourish. Humanity’s ascent is flush with examples of evolving methods, meaning, and sophistication of humans in community. “Habits of the heart . . . [are] the sum of ideas that shape mental habits . . . the whole moral and intellectual state of a people,” claimed Alexis de Tocqueville. Citizenship is a practical response to the needs of each and every community. 

But there is another aspect to add. If we are not fully human except in community, not selves except in relation to other selves (as Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, David Riesman, and many other thinkers argue), then how we engage with others is essential to our humanity. If we understand ourselves through relationships, then how we order our relationships is of critical importance. 

Finally if we are to truly embrace and sustain the principles of an advanced democracy, we must realize that there can be no democracy without the collective energies and coherent engagement of persons living in the democracy. Citizenship embraces the multi-faceted behaviors, relationships, and commitments necessary for civil society to function and for human persons to fully flourish. It is essential that we afford our youth the opportunities to understand deeply these principles and to begin to explore how they will engage as full-fledged members of a civil society. Equipping our young with the concepts that underpin these dual objectives of human flourishing and engagement in the common good is the work of forming good citizens in the fullest sense. 

Two things are required to accomplish this work—and schools play a vital role in their realization. First, individuals need to understand themselves as selves entering the public square. Second, they need to understand what it means to participate actively in the communities in which they are engaged.  

Educators tasked with this developmental responsibility must first make sense of their own relationship to the common good and their communities. This process of discovery will yield insights into how a human person forms attachments and the individual strengths necessary to fully participate, properly serve, and ultimately to exercise the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.  

The Field School: Character at the Fore

In 2003, a group of boys at the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland—most of them lacrosse players—conspired to cheat on the SAT. For a well-respected prep school, the scandal was a disappointment and a PR nightmare. For history teacher Todd Barnett, it prompted a career shift into the school’s newly created Endowed Chair for Ethics and a personal focus on what really works in teaching character.

Barnett brought in speakers, held conferences, and started student leadership programs. But the most effective approach, he says, was the Prefect Program, in which hand-picked high school seniors were paired with ninth graders to coach them in moral decision-making.

“The whole point was to get kids to exercise their moral muscles as much as possible, to think through things that might happen,” Barnett said. “Schools tend to have the attitude that things should be black and white. But there are so many personalities and situations, and kids are growing throughout school. Often in those conversations, kids were talking about the gray of the issues.”

Thinking through such issues—and how to help students care about them—served Barnett well when he founded the Field School, a private, all-boys middle school in Crozet, Virginia. The school, which has 50 students in fifth through eighth grades, has a stated mission to “develop well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment.”

“Character development is an appeal of our school,” Barnett said. “Parents perceive that this is going to be a big part of our curriculum, and middle school is a vital time for that to develop. There are lots of opportunities to reflect and learn during these years.”

Barnett believes the successful shaping of character happens in two primary ways at the Field School: through the modeling of ethical behavior by teachers, and how teachers and school leadership respond when things go wrong.

Barnett tries to hire teachers who exemplify the kind of character he wants to see in his students.

“I think about it with myself,” he said. “I feel like if I want people to be respectful, I need to be respectful of them. If I want them to be responsible, I need to model that in the classroom.”

The quality of compassion, Barnett noted, can be particularly challenging for boys at this age. He encourages his staff to treat the students with the kind of tender-heartedness they want to see emerge.

“The more you can show you care about them, the more it rubs off, and they are willing to behave in ways that are not necessarily reflective of adolescent boys,” Barnett said. “We do all we can to show respect to the boys, and they respond to us in the way we treat them.”

Children are bound to make mistakes, and middle school boys are no exception. Instead of dreading student transgressions, Barnett sees them as a prime opportunity for growth and for communicating each boy’s value.

“Kids get to learn when they do something wrong,” he said. “Those episodes get a lot of our collective attention. We call you out when you do something wrong because you matter in this community.”

For small infractions, there is a system of merits and demerits, with resultant rewards and consequences. In other circumstances, the school’s response depends on the situation, but reminiscent of the Prefect Program Barnett initiated years ago, it always involves a lot of discussion. Barnett has learned that in the case of dishonesty, it is best to engage the student as soon as possible; coming clean happens more often when there isn’t time to concoct a good lie. On the other hand, he noted that giving students reflection time can be helpful with interpersonal conflicts and other issues. In all instances, teachers spend a great deal of time talking through missteps with students, rather than just meting out punishments.

“We try to get them to a point where they feel remorseful,” Barnett said. “Hopefully this will help them think about things before they do them again.”

It is this modeling and careful handling of mistakes that Barnett hopes will shape young men who avoid the kinds of disastrous choices he witnessed early in his career. Field School alumni confirm that Barnett’s priorities and efforts in this area are compelling.

“In surveys, our graduates tell us that the character formation component is more significant than any of the other programs we do,” Barnett said. “They leave and eventually come back from college and tell us, This is such a good place and I didn’t appreciate it at the time. A big part of that is that we find lots of opportunities to talk, counsel, advise, and encourage.”





On Feeding the Good

This article was originally published on January 29, 2018. In it, former Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction explains how daily choices shape character.

Everyone has character. A person is not born with character; it is learned. It is not genetic, but it can be taught. It cannot be bought, but it can be earned.

To me, character is how you act when no one is watching.

I heard a story long ago about an old Cherokee who is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

My experience is that choices made during our lifetime, especially during our youth, have the greatest impact on who we are, what we stand for, and how others view us.

Inside each of us there is an internal struggle between competing interests. One interest is based on selfishness and greed; the other interest is based on honesty, truth, and kindness. Only one will prevail. What we choose will reveal our true character.

If we “feed the good” and strive to do the right thing, even when it is difficult, eventually what were once difficult decisions become easier, and soon they become part of our character.

“Feeding the bad” can create habits that dull our senses, and soon we begin to rationalize decisions that we would previously have never considered. They eventually become part of who we are. They make up our character.

As a young man, I learned a poem by Alexander Pope that still rings in my ears.

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,

As to be hated needs but be seen;

Yet seen too oft, familiar with its face,

We first abhor, then we pity, then we embrace.

Sadly, I have seen this play out many times.

We need poetry like Pope’s to warn us of the perils of vice, and stories like that of the Cherokee grandfather show us the consequences of our daily choices, because all of us are building character. The daily decisions of which wolf to feed define what our character will be.

The Courage to Begin Small

It is only right that when we think of courage, we think of profound sacrifice, suffering, and voluntary risk on behalf of the innocent. The most common icons of courage are soldiers and martyrs, after all, and this is fitting given that soldiers and martyrs offer up not just their comfort or wealth, but their very lives. However, when teaching courage to high school students, it is fitting also that we should think of laughter, for the sound of laughter is a cracking whip that terrifies young men and women.

Several years ago, while rounding out two months of lectures on the saga of King David, I asked a class of seventh grade boys to choose whatever passage they liked from the story and write a short homily about it. I told them their homilies should be addressed to their fellows, encouraging and exhorting them to virtue in some area in which they were commonly tempted. In retrospect, the results of the assignment were not terribly surprising. Most of the boys chose the story of David and Goliath, which is arguably the most iconic depiction of courage in all of literature. The homilies they built from the account of David’s courage were not all that helpful, though, for they all concerned great and noble deeds. They exhorted one another to share the gospel with their travel soccer teams, to stand up to bullies, and to someday become missionaries and soldiers. While none of these exhortations struck me as improper, they did remind me of Aristotle’s claim that young people tend to “overdo everything.”

As a high school teacher, I do not yet need students with great courage—just the courage appropriate to overcome the thousand small temptations to cowardice and sloth which emerge over the course of the day. He who is faithful in little will be faithful in much, which means that students who want to someday risk their lives for the innocent should gain practice risking their egos and their pride today. I had asked my students to address an area of common temptation, and to be frank, the battlefield and mission field were simply too far off. My students were eager to exhort their fellows to courage in unusual situations, situations in which they rarely found themselves. At so young an age, courage rarely requires the shedding of blood. For most high school students, courage simply means being willing to be laughed at. “What your teachers need the most,” I told my students when handing back their work, “is your willingness to be embarrassed for following mundane, unglamorous rules.”

I know that teenagers are sometimes tempted by weighty sins and crimes, but such temptations are typically born of continual, habitual resignation to temptation in small matters, like breaking the dress code, cheating on tests, using cell phones during the school day, and disappearing at lunch. Of course, such “crimes” really are quite trivial, and so taking a stand against them often means adopting a mock-heroic quality that is easily ridiculed. On a battlefield, no honest soldier scorns his enemy for defending home and hearth. Two soldiers charging at one another have no cause to crack jokes at the other’s expense. The same is not true of two boys in the restroom, one of whom is using his cell phone against school rules, and the other of whom is saying, “Put it away. That’s not right.” Such opposition is ripe for sneering and jesting. Such opposition will earn the cracking whip of laughter.

Absolutely no one enjoys being laughed at, but the young hate it more than the elderly because, as Aristotle says in his Rhetoric, “owing to their love of honor they cannot bear being slighted, and are indignant if they imagine themselves unfairly treated,” which means the high school student who is courageous in small, daily temptations must endure a kind of suffering which he finds particularly loathsome and distasteful.

Similarly, no one enjoys a bee sting, especially those who are allergic to bee stings, and teenagers are allergic to the indignation which accompanies a slight. The teenager who sticks up for the rules is not likely to get kicked and jabbed but jeered and mocked. Most adults have clocked their own failures often enough that loving honor seems pure fantasy. At thirty-eight, I have said and done enough foolish, embarrassing things (and meditated sleeplessly about who has noticed) that “my honor” strikes me as fair game. It is not so with the young, Aristotle argues, for they think too highly not only of themselves, but of everyone, for they have “not yet witnessed many instances of wickedness.” What is more, the young “trust others readily, because they have not often been cheated,” which means that the mockery that common courage earns is, paradoxically, both predictable and surprising. By middle-age, it is only predictable.

Common courage ultimately matures into great courage, and yet it is dangerous to grasp at greatness too early, for it usually means an unwillingness to undertake the drudgery that attends practice. Mockery is adverse to the teenage temperament, so much so that the sixteen-year-old who becomes accustomed to being laughed at will be well-prepared, by the age of twenty-six, to be shot at.

“If the jeers of your fellows feel like knife blades,” I told my students, “you will be ready when they become actual knife blades.” Do not withhold examples of great courage from your students, but do not fail to appropriate those examples to common, mundane temptations to vice. If a student is willing to be laughed at for God and country (and school), that student will certainly be willing to die for God and country, as well.

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Joshua Gibbs teaches humanities at the Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of the book How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, and he blogs about education here.

A Bullying Lesson from an Inspiring Teacher: Character Is Destiny

This article was originally published on October 30, 2017. In it, education leader Bill Jackson recounts a lesson about character he has never forgotten.

I don’t remember much of 6th grade other than the day Mr. Kastroll cancelled our regular classes and taught an impromptu lesson on character. No math that day. No art or PE. Just lecture, discussion, reflection, and writing on a choice we had made.  

Early that morning a 5th-grade girl had been physically bullied by another 5th grader. A 5th-grade matter, you might say, but the problem was that many of us in the 6th grade had seen the incident—and we had done nothing about it.  

The girl who had been bullied was injured and upset. Mr. Kastroll was livid.  

How could we possibly have seen this and done nothing, he wanted to know. He didn’t ask us this question just once or twice and then let the matter slide. As I recall it, he lectured us for more than an hour about our individual and collective failure.  

I also recall that it didn’t feel like a lecture in the traditional sense. The talk he gave us, along with the reflective writing and discussions we did, felt more like a punch in the gut.  

Mr. Kastroll wanted us to see that moment as a test of character that we had failed. He wanted us to know that failing to act in the face of injustice perpetrated by others is itself an injustice. We were to think of ourselves as defenders of justice and kindness and safety on our school campus, he told us. Inaction in the face of serious challenges to those norms was hardly better than direct violations of the norms.  

I’ve never forgotten this lesson, even if I haven’t always lived up to it.  

I think of character as “values made manifest” through human behavior. On the one hand, we hold in our hearts certain aspirations for our behavior. We may aim to be kind, just, and reverent. But how do we bring these aspirations to life through our actions? When other people aren’t watching or when there is a significant price to be paid, what are we really committed to doing?  

An old cliché teaches us that character is something more “caught” than taught. From a young age, children are watching their parents and peers for clues about how to behave. They’re absorbing the norms of the community—the virtues and values that that community prizes above all others. 

Another old cliché is also true: Character is destiny. There is no more important focus for teachers and parents than character formation.  

So ask yourself: what are the norms of my community? Are they what I and others want them to be? And how should the adults who care for students and children collaborate to help them internalize the norms to which we’re deeply committed? 

Bill Jackson founded GreatSchools.org, and now leads RaiseReadyKids.com to help parents of children before they reach school age.