Core Values: In Praise of Good Intentions

by Alan Reinstein, Columnist
photo contributed by Alan Reinstein

On Dec. 11, the senior class’s in-person social event was postponed due to what I understand was a wave of concerns from teachers about the safety of the event. I also understand that the frustration and anxiety of these concerned teachers led to language that was hurtful to the organizers. I don’t know all the details or the various points that teachers made to argue against the event taking place, but I believe that both sides were well-intentioned.

My preference for following the directions of the school leaders, whose good intentions I trust, seems, I’m sure, like dangerous naiveté to some of my colleagues who have thought much more deeply about the social and political consequences of inexpert leadership. “We don’t care about good intentions.” they might say, “as much as we care about the physical health of our students, families and selves. And we are obliged to speak out against dangerous actions.”  

Fair enough. But I’d like to argue that we should also care about good intentions enough to steer ourselves toward respectful language to the actor while we criticize the act. To be clear, having “good intentions” does not mean having pure intentions. All of us are susceptible to allowing our personal interests to interfere with the health of others, and in fact, I don’t know if it’s possible to separate one motivation from another when trying to understand or express why we support one position or another.

And yet, I’m ready to assume genuinely good intentions on both sides of this in-person, senior-class event discussion: those who organized the event saw significant value in seniors physically seeing each other for the first time in months; those who opposed the event worried that the event might do more harm than good. Neither group should claim to care more deeply than the other about the well-being of students.

We have these four tenets for our school, core values that taken together are profound directions for sane behavior in an admittedly insane world: show respect, listen first, choose kindness, take responsibility. I see these values as duties that are not contingent on how I am treated by others. I must show you respect even if you do not show respect to me. Same for listening, being kind and taking responsibility. But here, in our school, we should expect to see our respect reciprocated; we can assume the best in each other, that those we disagree with genuinely do care about the emotional and physical health of our community.

A community can be fractured, of course, by festering anger and hurt feelings, but repair is also within the grasp of the same people who succumb to these very human breaches of good judgment. We take responsibility. We apologize — not for the emotions or reasons that spurred our hurtful actions or words, but for the actions and words themselves. And we do this more readily when we see in others a goodness that we see in ourselves.