Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Be Nice, Work Hard

There are a lot of rules centered on behavior in schools.  For years, I've had nagging doubts about whether we should be creating rules to manage and anticipate every instance of student misbehavior.

The inclination has always seemed out of step with the education mission.

Today I read an article on humanism in the Guardian by A. C. Grayling, and two sentences seemed to express that nagging voice.

Though the topic is religion, the last two sentences are what caught my eye.
Religious moralities assume that there is one great truth and one right way to live for everyone.  Another great flaw with religious morality is that it says if you do not obey, you will be punished.  The threat of punishment is not a logically adequate ground for moral behavior, even if it is prudent to avoid punishment by behaving as ordered. Unless one's moral outlook comes from being thought-out and chosen for oneself, it is at best an imitation of morality, at worst a subversion of it.
I'm a practical person, so I know that some rules are indisputable, especially where children are concerned. (You simply MUST leave the building when the fire alarm goes off.  We can't tolerate violence against another person.  Listening to adults in a time of crisis is non-negotiable.)

But there are other areas where teaching the child to think through an issue, choose for oneself, and make a moral choice is the slower, but ultimately better way to develop thoughtful, good human beings.  Growing people is what we are about, so a continuing conversation about choices should figure into the curriculum.

Threatening our way to good behavior puts a lot of pressure on the threatener and none on the miscreant.  Certainly there is something inherently good about making the right choice that could be shown, unfortunately sometimes only through trial and error.  It's the errors we continually prepare for in our phalanx of rules.

Students, especially good ones, grow preoccupied by the extrinsic rewards celebrated in a school--and that includes the awarding of grades--and can miss the larger purpose of education: to improve the self. Taking short cuts to get the rewards seems like a logical, if immoral, response to the game in play.

But who set up the false prize in the first place?

In the meantime, since I'm "all in" by now for this particular game, I compromise with two classroom rules poached from a colleague (who likely poached them from someone else).

They remind me of a description of the Torah I once read:  The Torah all boils down to: treat others as you would like to be treated.  Everything else is commentary.

Be Nice.  Work hard.


  1. I get so frustrated by all the rules...they all assume the worst of our children. We have one cultural more - respect. Respect ourselves by working hard and speaking up for ourselves, respect others by treating them kindly and respect our classroom by taking care of it...the kids always come up with a zillion things they can respect. I think this is because they are already "trained" that classrooms should have a million rules - and they are only in third grade.

  2. Your post reminded me of the motto of this wonderful elementary school (and also that every teacher has an up to date blog). Top of the page: Be Nice • Work Hard • Learn Well

  3. @Mark: what a cool school! Thanks for adding the link. They say it all.

  4. Thanks Mary. Great points. There just simply aren't enough rules to cover all the variables especially given the rapid pace of change. We need to cultivate empathy in ourselves and in our communities so we can have the kind of psychological flexibility these times require.