by Alan Reinstein, English teacher
I’ve got a small problem with the four South core values that are posted up in our school hallways and classrooms. You know them: show respect; listen first; choose kindness; take responsibility.
I have no problem with what’s at their collective core, the fundamental value of respecting others, and no problem with the two tips for practicing respectfulness, to listen and be kind, or with the all-important fallback plan for when we fail — taking responsibility, owning up and apologizing. My problem instead is with the way they come across — like commands from adults who have already mastered them, rather than communal rallying cries for what we can mostly agree on are important interpersonal skills that we should all be trying to get better at. It’s the phrasing that needs a change, an uplift. Keep the substance; change the style. What I suggest is a short opening phrase slyly attached to each aspiration.
Here it is: “Let’s all try to …” Just plop it in front of each one.
Let’s all try to show respect. Let’s all try to listen first. Let’s all try to choose kindness. Let’s all try to take responsibility. A modest addition for a bold difference, in two ways.
First, this is what “Let’s all” does: it reminds students right away that the adults in the school are also accountable for practicing these values within our community. The responsibility for civility in our school falls to all of us to practice — but perhaps even more so to the adults, whose failures in this area will signal to students a hypocrisy that will swiftly reduce any civic motivation to push further to improve on any of these virtues. Students should expect daily interactions with adults — teachers, counselors, support staff, administrators, custodians — who are respectful, attentive, kind and who, when they fall short, are able to apologize.
Second, the “Try to” segment is an indispensable reminder that these values are hard to practice consistently. This begins my third year writing this column, and in each of the first two years, I’ve opened the year acknowledging that these core values are easy to announce but tough to follow, and that is what I want to say here, too. They’re always tough — at least, they are for me. It can be exhausting to show respect for folks whose opinions or behaviors you disagree with, and no doubt challenging to listen. Being kind to them is even harder. And who likes to apologize? The “Try to” extension acknowledges these challenges and assumes people’s good intentions from the start, that we’re doing our best (even when we’re not).
So as the year begins, here’s an invitation for all of us. Let’s open the year by accepting that studying, teaching and working in a place where respectfulness is prioritized is on all of our wishlists. And then let’s each choose to work on one of these other three values that we know we’re weakest in. Maybe some of us will want to practice listening better — really listening — to the people around us (that’s mine). Or some may want to work on being kinder to people we don’t agree with or just don’t like. Or maybe some of us struggle with a willingness to take responsibility for errors or slip-ups.
Whatever you choose to work on, you can’t go wrong. And you’re not alone. We’re all working on getting better, and it’s not easy. So let’s at least all try.