by Alan Reinstein, English teacher
A few years ago, the South faculty came together and arrived at four “core values” to encourage greater civility among the members of our community. You’ve no doubt seen them on artful posters in the hallways or your classrooms: “Listen First. Choose Kindness. Show Respect. Take Responsibility.” They’re not radical ideas; you saw these same phrases in other schools before and said, “Yep, that’s what schools are supposed to promote.” But I’d like to say here, at the outset of the school year, first, that these core values are meant for all of us, not just students, and next, that they are deceptively challenging.
Even though ours are meant to be aspirations that we’re all encouraged to strive toward, sayings on school posters always seem to come across as commands meant for only students, adults having already mastered them. Let’s reject that idea outright. These values — goals, not rules — speak to everyone here, and they’re just as hard for adults to become good at as for students. No one masters them.
Like all guidelines, they’re really easy to practice when the stakes are low and hard when the stakes climb even a little bit. For example, it’s a cinch to listen to someone you agree with, and to be kind and respectful to them, too. Why wouldn’t it be? As for taking responsibility, if you offend the folks you like and respect, go ahead and apologize right away; they’ll forgive you.
But the posters are there for when the going gets tougher. See how difficult it is to be attentive, generous and civil to someone you disagree with. I mean really disagree with. With such intense crises all around us — public health, social, political, environmental — we are bound to meet people in or out of class with opposing viewpoints on how to best approach or resolve them.
Listening well and practicing kindness and respect while also speaking out clearly and critically in passionate disagreement is a struggle for all of us. As for taking responsibility — for instance, owning up to an error or apologizing — it’s so much more burdensome if the person or group you’re speaking to may not forgive you, or worse, if you fear they’ll spew more angry words at you. Who wants to take responsibility with that in store?
So that’s all I’m saying here to open the school year: four core values that apply to staff and students equally and that can be tough for all of us. Maybe the faculty should have chosen only a single core value, like “Just Do Your Best.” That would have been easier, sure, but I like the ones we have. We’re lions; we can do this.