Learning Core Values Through Observation
The five girls have been called to the assistant principal's office after several days of griping at one another. Two of them are petite, blond and white; the other three are taller, wirier and black. All five are sixth-graders in their first year at Chewning Middle School in Durham.
"All right, girls, let's get everything out in the open. Why are taunting each other?" The assistant principal, Edna Vann, wants answers, now.
Jessica Johnston, a white wisp of a child, glances over at the black girls. Speaking up has never been easy for her. How can she describe what she has been going through?
So far she likes the learning part of sixth grade. "You have more chances at doing things, a lot more teachers and you learn mainly different things every day," she says two months into the school year. But the social part, well, that's another story. She doesn't know many kids because her friends from elementary school attend a different school. She thought she was going to the their school because is was close to her house. But when fall came, she discovered that she lives in a neighborhood assigned to a school across town for the purposes of desegregation.
She is one of only three or four white students in each of her classes. Many of her classmates come from the projects in Durham. Taller and more outspoken than she, some of them call her "Mickey Mouse" because of her protruding ears. Every morning she climbs the steps into the school bus with a big knot in her stomach.
With all the attention we pay to grades and test scores, it is easy to forget that schools are the primary places where kids learn to get along -- or fight -- with other and be tolerant or intolerant of individual differences. Home life provides the foundation for values, but schoolyards and classrooms are where those values are tested hour upon hour, day after day.
This is particularly true in the middle grades, when young adolescents are beginning to actively define the moral principles by which they will live. At this age they are able not only to grasp concepts of right and wrong but also, for the first time, to detect exceptions, inconsistencies and conflicts among competing viewpoints.
Getting along with others, or doing the right thing, can be tough in their world, which is considerably harsher, with more obvious temptations than the world many of their parents knew. Sassy attitudes are in, as are at least a passing knowledge of where to acquire drugs or cigarettes. The language they hear from adults is rough, the images ugly: athletes talking trash, talk show guests throwing chairs at each other, parents arguing in the car at aggressive drivers.
And yet it is not difficult to persuade them to care for each other. Cactuses on the outside, inside they want more than anything to be liked by other kids. Earlier they were good because of what was in it for them now they want others to respect them, and they want to respect themselves. Educators and parents can seize this opportunity to inspire and teach humane values.
Currently, many teachers are trying to do this. Some of them are caught up in moral training known as character education, teaching specific curriculum in core values. But as Jessica's year illustrated, character education is less about lessons taught than lessons observed. Character is learned when kids feel their viewpoints are sought and respected.
Character is learned when children feel safe telling the truth and confident that their observations will be acted upon or at least listened to. Character is fashioned when students are engaged in challenging assignments that involve other pupils and when they are taught not only how to answer questions but also how to reflect on their answers.
This is a tall order for teachers, who, as we will see, have been given numerous tasks to perform by a society that expects schools to cure virtually every ill. But as parents we have a right to expect our kids' teachers to be decent moral guides. Most Americans now place teaching values to kids at or near the top of their list of things they want schools to do. We are coming to understand that positive values improve our children's mental health, boost their performance in school, and increase the odds that they will contribute to the community.
All instructors teach and model values, of course, even in the middle of a geography lesson or math drill. The questions is, which values? As I learned watching Jessica, a teacher's instructional style, the ideas she is trying to get across, even the remarks she casually tosses out, convey a lot. Parents can pick up significant clues simply by observing their kids' teachers in the classroom. The parent who does this will be better able to understand what her child is facing each day, better able to help her think through any puzzling or unpleasant encounters. Teresa, Jessica's mom, never found the time to observe Jessica's teachers in middle school, a fact she regretted later.