Identifying one’s principles is a good exercise. Here are some I hold that you might, too:
- All students have value as human beings.
- All students possess yet-to-be-tapped long-term flourishing potential.
- All students possess likable qualities.
It’s good to know what you stand for, what you value. And, as I’ve written before, research suggests it’s helpful to ask students what they value, too.
But after I wrote that post on the student values affirmation intervention, I received a smart message from Camille, an educator from Massachusetts. Camille wrote:
I’ve learned we have to go beyond the mere affirmation of values. Kids can say they have certain values (honesty, work ethic), but IF they act in ways that are not aligned with values, they don't necessarily see the problem. Or they say, “This is not who I am.” But it is, at least at that moment. But they can change if given opportunities and practice!
I think of Tim O'Brien's character in //////The Things They Carried who had felt that having courage was something that he could believe and at the RIGHT MOMENT, the BIG moment, he would show courage. The problem is, if we don't test our values — do little values drills — we don't practice for when it's the BIG game, when the stakes are high, when the selfish gain pushes against our values.
I went to a conference at MIT with Dalai Lama, and the presenter suggested we create little tests or drills to practice our values. I already did that, I realized: for example, because I believe integrity is important, I set little challenges for myself and meet them to show I have integrity. Even something as simple as “during a jog, run as fast as you can to the next telephone pole. No matter how bad you feel, do it because you said you would.”
How this translates in the classroom is naming the values students are able to practice. After an assigned reading, for example, I can say to my class, “This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your integrity and honesty: did you do the reading?” I say this once and expect every student to make eye contact with me and say yes or no. I thank them for their honesty, and I praise those who showed responsibility.
Another way: when passing out a test, I say, “This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your honesty and self-reflection. If you did not prepare well, you can still be a person with integrity and honesty. And afterwards you can reflect, another good skill, and then study harder/better the next time.”
Camille from Massachusetts
There are at least two golden nuggets in Camille’s letter that I think we all need to consider.
First, for us and our students, there’s actually a danger in stopping at mere value affirmation. You and I can state principles like those that I start this blog article with — that’s easy. But if we end up living in contrast to those values, we’re cultivating not the values-driven life, but the hypocritical one! Not a single one of us hoped to become hypocrites when we grew up.
Our students don’t wish to be that way, either. What a blessing for Camille’s students to have a teacher who pushes them to think like this.
And second, the path to living a value-driven life — a life where one’s principles are proven daily, where an integrated character is day-by-day solidifying — isn’t willpower, it’s practice. Camille calls these “value drills” — little points in the day where she demonstrates to herself that she is a person of integrity because she said she’d run to that next pole and then she did that no matter how she felt. Her students who want to be honest have a chance with today’s reading check to practice that honesty.
This is brilliant because this is perhaps the fundamental way that human beings change — not in the giant moments, but in the small ones; not in the championship matches at the end of the season, but in the humdrum practices after school each day.
What’s your value drill today? How can you bring this to bear in your work with students?