The Moral Imperative

Contemplation

The notion of a moral imperative to guide action is not a new concept. For German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), human understanding of pure reason was the basis for a moral code defining subsequent action. Long before that, holy books from world religions were proposing a course of action focussed on the moral integrity of leaders who sacrificed for the betterment of others. Yet, the story of those consumed by greed and the quest for power is equally pervasive. John Dashwood’s promise to his dying father to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is quickly replaced by greed acceptable according to English law of the time. Mr. Potter in the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” released in 1946, demonstrates a more intense avarice and quest for power. Charles Dickens sent us all clear message on who we should be in his 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. Theodore “Dr. Seuss, Giesel gave us a reminder in the 1957 publication of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ron Howard and Jim Carrey hammered the message home in the film version released in 2000. We know better but we’re not doing better.

Over the past week, we have watched in awe as political leaders have demonstrated a popular culture apparently bereft of morals and ethics. We sat riveted to the news and witnessed example after example of people spouting the rhetoric of a moral purpose who in fact were clinging to the relics of power and privilege. It brought me right back to the 1989 when I was riveted to the television watching Chinese tanks driving over pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. Every social justice bone in my body believed that we were at a turning point. The Amnesty International quest to shine a light and expose injustice was playing out. We, as a collective society, would no longer be able to turn away and feign unawareness. Now people would be ready to start the work of creating a just society with a foundation of respect for human rights. I realized this was not the case when China did not even lose most favoured trading status with the United States. We are at another important point in our history. We are witnessing people ignoring COVID-19 rules designed to stop the spread of a global pandemic, perpetuating privilege, undermining the democratic process, ignoring legal obligations and fair process, and turning away from promises to family and friends. Are we looking at the fall of an empire, a failed experiment in democracy, or the possibility of reaching out to grasp the moral imperative required to create a socially just world?

I was privileged to be teaching in a Grade 6 classroom the day after U.S Congress was stormed and desecrated.  For the first hour of the day, the questions and perceptions of 11-year-old students directed the learning.  These kids wanted to talk about politics, democracy, communism, racism, anti-racism, slavery, the Civil War in the United States, Hitler’s legacy of neo-Nazis, Black Lives Matter, environmental practices, the oil and gas industry, the differences between the perception of guns in Canada and the United States, and the impact of Trump’s words.  Lots of big ideas.  When an idea began to resonate, a hand shot into the air or tentatively went up.  These kids represented what we need on a global scale.  A willingness to think.  A willingness to consider possibilities.  A willingness to think in terms of fairness and social justice.  For the kids in this room, there was no question that logical consequences are in order for poor choices.

A moral code has already been defined. Ethical requirements are articulated. Social justice has been defined and written down. The issue is how we as individuals live our lives that acknowledges a moral imperative. Individuals in leadership positions should be held to a higher standard. Trump has provided the most recent example of the power of words by a person in a leadership position to disenfranchise, to disrespect, to undermine, and to invoke violence and lawlessness of those with power, privilege and entitlement. However, it is not just people in leadership positions who are required to hold themselves to account.

As individuals, we need be hold ourselves to account for our behaviour and how we live or disregard our own moral code. I used to equate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs with the development of morals and ethics. My assumption was that self-actualization required moral and ethical development. It required attention only after basic requirements for food, safety, love and belonging, and esteem were in place. Now I think that the metaphor of weaving better describes our moral and ethical development. The warp threads are the foundational components of who we are, and the weft threads are the experiences. It is a particularly apt metaphor for me because I use to love to weave. I just wasn’t that good at it. I would pull the weft thread tighter and tighter. The result was a piece of weaving that got narrower and narrower until someone intervened to help me loosen the threads and allow the warp threads to assume their parallel structure. The quality of the fabric was a reflection of those stationary threads and the constantly moving thread. There are many examples of people who begin their lives with a strong sense of integrity that is eroded over time.

For those of you who spend a lot of time with children, you will have noticed the quest for fairness and logical consequences for poor choices. As a principal who spends a lot of time outside on the playground with kids, there is little reticence of even the youngest students to let me know who is not playing fair, who I need to talk to, who I need time-out, or whose parents I need to phone. In conversations with students about poor choices they have made, invariably the harshest consequences come from the students. The question “How do you think that made … feel?” frequently prompts tears. Empathy is alive and well on our elementary playgrounds. As is a willingness to accept responsibility for choices.

The ability to empathize seems to dissolve into the atmosphere along with curiosity as students move through the system.  For some of us, we may be our own best whipping posts, or have reflective practices built into our lives that keep us honest.  For others, there is a quest to step away from assuming responsibility for our own poor choices.  This seems to be most common when a polarized stance is adopted.  Us and them.  An unwillingness or inability to consider another stance or position or feelings. 

To keep ourselves open to learning, we need to value pluralism and the importance of diverse voices and perspectives. It is possible to have a strong identity with commonalities and still maintain different culture or values or beliefs. As a Canadian, I am lucky to live with people from many different places, spaces, and experiences. However, that privilege brings with it a responsibility to listen and learn from the experiences of other Canadians and question a system where some voices are amplified, and others are silenced. My study of history, political science, and my father taught me to articulate my ideas loud and proud. Time, my friends and family taught me that some of my earlier conclusions and strongly articulated ideas were just wrong. It happens. Ideas change if minds are open. If you are ever wondering if you are straying from your moral compass and acting with integrity, and don’t have someone who will tell you, find a kid in elementary school. They will have no difficulty putting you back on track. If we expect moral integrity from others, we need to live it ourselves.

Truth Matters in 2020

Tree of Life on Game 5 Ranch – Eastern Texas

The problem with telling lies, is it can easily become a lifelong habit.  The people I respect least in the world have spouted a litany of lies that obscure the concept of truth in their own minds.  And, as every wise grandmother, Shakespeare and popular fiction will tell you – lies always surface.

Plato’s notion of truth has been used by Christians for many generations to explain the existence of God, or the transcendence beyond the external world of the senses to greater illumination seen by the soul.  I am not discounting this greater notion of truth or dismissing the power of the concept, but it is not what I have been recently pondering about truth.  I have just been reflecting on the things that come out of our mouths that are verifiably true or false, and the subsequent justification that we provide.  Sometimes things are just true or false and nothing else.  Apparently, the term truth bearer describes this concept.

Aristotle defined truth as how we use logic and reason to decide how we act.  This seems to be the basis for the slippery slope that we exist on.  The rationale is usually to get ahead in an overwhelming competitive line or save face. In this case, anything and everything spouted can be provided as truth, as long as it is not verifiable as false or embraced as truth by those predisposed to accept it.  One example of this is padding a resume. Another example of this is the ramblings of a politician, prolific on Twitter, who has been able to identify with his supporters on some level that does not require verifiable truth.   Fake news abounds.  Verifiable truth is presented and dismissed as irrelevant.  Perhaps Kate Atkinson calls it in her book Transcription:  “People always sa[y] they [want] the truth, but really they [are] perfectly content with a facsimile.”

Another slippery slope has been the notion of “truth to self”.  Whereas I agree the notion that two people can experience similar situations and view them differently based on their background knowledge, I have also seen it used as a cop out.  If you are truly going to keep yourself accountable to the truth, you need to analyse the situation rather than simply justify your own perceptions.  Sometimes my feelings are hurt or my conclusions are wrong.  Yet sometimes when I analyse the situation, I am able to identify my own misreading of the cues or the egocentricism or the overt Machiavellian intent which can result in misunderstanding, manipulation and/or lies utilized to save face or further an agenda.  I am proposing that we hold ourselves accountable for our own rationale for lies, white or other, as well as our perceptions by reflecting rather than simply engaging in the process of justifying our initial responses.

As an elementary school principal, I frequently deal with students who have made inappropriate choices.  My philosophy is that no one is expected to be perfect and tomorrow is a new opportunity to make good choices, however it comes with some very basic caveats in dealing with the situation:

  1. Calm down first.

Take responsibility for using the strategies that work for you to self-calm and allow your brain to move beyond “flight or fight” mode and engage in problem solving.

2. Own your choices. Admit your mistakes.

Hiding behind justifications for inappropriate behaviour is not taking responsibility for the choices you made.

3. Ask yourself: “Is this who you want to be in the world?

4. Determine how you could have better handled the situation.

Come up with a plan of what you will do next time if a similar situation happens

5. Repair the relationship.

Admit your bad choice without excuses.  State clearly how you felt in the interaction and how you will handle a situation like that in the future.  Don’t expect forgiveness to be a right.  Now that you know better. Do better.

My students quickly learn that I have no tolerance for someone looking into my eyes and lying.  It diminishes both our relationship and his/her integrity. Khaled Hosseini states it best in The Kite Runner:  “When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth.”  A lie represents a second bad choice when it comes out of your mouth and you must begin the arduous and misguided process of justifying it to yourself.    I suppose my end goal us to reach kids to be the best version of themselves.

So yes, truth does matter.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, theologians, you and I are required to continue to grapple with the truth and celebrate it,  in order to preserve the best in each of us.  In the end we choose who we want to be in the world. We also choose the example we want our kids to live by. Live like truth matters. A valiant challenge for 2020.

 

 

 

Peaceful Playgrounds

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I recently read a publication in the NY Times Sunday Review called My Kid’s First Lesson in Realpolitik.   Annie Pfeifer is a parent bemoaning the need for our children to stand up to bullies.  There is recognition of the fact that “helicopter parents” swoop in with speed and  vehemence to deal with any conflict, big or small, that his / her child may encounter.   The alternative presented is to let kids fight it out, like on the playgrounds in Switzerland, so they learn how to deal with conflict.  It is my position that both of these options fail to provide our children with the confidence or skills to deal with conflict.  Our kids need educators and families to work together to provide the guidance and mentoring to teach kids how to resolve conflict.

Playgrounds serve to be a microcosm of the world where our kids learn important lessons.  They are filled with students who are human.  Perfection may not be possible but the aspiration to create a peaceful playground is paramount.  We want our future generation to accept that everyone is invited to the party and we all need to learn to co-exist peacefully to create a better reality.  A playground is a relatively small fishbowl and a good place to learn about kindness, acceptance, tolerance and to develop problem solving skills.

Peaceful playground require:

  • kindness
  • communication skills
  • compassion
  • empathy
  • inclusivity
  • compromise
  • sharing space, equipment and friends
  • an ability to express feelings, while considering other people’s feelings
  • an ability to understand when you need to self calm and practice those skills
  • problem solving skills
  • ability to follow safety rules and game rules

Of course the list could go on.  We have a number of programs and theories to help us navigate this course.  School Codes of Conduct are mandatory in schools in British Columbia and are widely published on school websites.  Articles and tweets about the topic of self regulation has become common.  @Stuart Shanker has committed to tweeting a daily quote #SelfReg to encourage us to pursue and gain a greater understanding of root causes of our feelings and how to deal with them.  .

I particularly like The Zones of Regulation program developed by Leah Kuypers, to teach kids that feeling emotions is never a bad thing but we require strategies to deal with them in ways that keep others and ourselves safe.  If you are very angry and in the “Red Zone”, your job is to self calm before you try to problem solve.  Kids are fascinated to learn that “yoga” or slow breathing actually causes your brain to calm your body.  Science at work!

The Peaceful Playgrounds Program is another program that I really like.  Basic messages are framed in a way for kids to easily remember and apply on the playground.  It also includes a plethora of ideas of things to keep kids active and problem solving on the playground.  Problem solving strategies that you probably remember from your own childhood.

  • Talk
  • Walk
  • Rock, Papers, Scissors ( Yes, you commit on 3 – agreed upon rule! )  In several of my other schools, this was know as Ching, Chang, Push, apparently a well established strategy in China too!

War Toys To Peace Art is a group established to fund art projects by peace loving groups of children.  The Friendship Bench is one way for kids to find their way into playground activity if they need some additional support.  A bench is designated as a space for kids to demonstrate kindness by inviting kids looking for a friend looking for someone to play with.  Programs like Jump Rope for Heart give kids a focus and the equipment to get involved in healthy playground activity.

Kids are human and sometimes they will need help resolving conflicts face to face AFTER they have calmed down.  When kids don’t make good choices, they need the opportunity to own them.  Kids need to be able to express how they are feeling and what they didn’t like in face to face conversations.  They also need to learn to listen to other opinions, how the choices he / she made impacted the other person and to develop strategies for how to repair relationships.  They also need to learn to move forward after they have dealt with the problem.   Adults are there to support kids in dealing with the problems.  The goal is for kids to develop the skills to problem solve and the confidence that they can.  Adults are involved in the process to ensure that name calling and bullying (physical and emotional )  do not become an accepted norm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Circle of Courage Reframed

Artwork by The Douglas Fir Pod (Learning Community)

Norma Rose Point School is a Kindergarten to Grade 8 School that opened 3 years ago on the original site of University Hill Secondary on the University Endowment Lands of the University of British Columbia.  The School in located on Musqueam ancestral lands and named after reknowned Musqueam Elder and educational leader, Norma “Rose” Point.  Students are organized into nine learning communities of two to five classes of students.  Students and staff are encouraged to ask questions, work collaboratively and share their learning with peers.

The articulation of the First People’s Principles by FNESC, the surrounding land, the significance of the signing of the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement with the Vancouver School Board and the new curriculum in B.C. has opened our minds to learning about and embracing Indigenous ways of knowing.  Indigenous cultures demonstrated one of the earliest expressions of democratic structures of governance by problem solving and making decisions in circles that gave equal voice and power to all people in the group.  That is what we strive to do at Rose Point School.

Martin Brokenleg has been inspirational in Indigenous, as well as educational spheres.   His Circle of Courage  was initially framed as a model of positive youth development in the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk, co-authored by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern.

As explained in the link, “The model integrates Native American philosophies of child-rearing, the heritage of early pioneers in education and youth work, and contemporary resilience research. Brokenleg et al. identify belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity as basic growth needs of all children to thrive.” (Brokenleg et al.)  It has served as the basis for framing the Code of Conduct at Norma Rose Point Elementary School.   

Students are challenged to think of their unique qualities and “voice” they bring to the group, as well as their responsibility to maintain the safety and nurturing aspect of the community.  Indigenous symbols that are meaningful in Coast Salish Culture are used to represent the big ideas presented in the Norma Rose Point (aka NRP) Circle of Courage.  Belonging is central to the definition of Community and symbolized by bear.  Kindness is used to put the focus on generousness of giving of self rather than goods and is symbolized by the whale.  Independence is symbolized by the dragonfly and represents our ability to take responsibility for our learning and actions.  The beaver represents taking responsibility for attaining goals to maintain health, curiosity and lifelong learning.

I came to Norma Rose Point as Vice Principal in January.  Of course this role includes many discussions about the whole gamut of choices made by students.  The beauty of the NRP Circle of Courage is it changes the conversation.  Students are able to reflect on who they are and the choices they are making and their commitment to the community. Discussion of restorative justice frames the process.  The goal is to help students apply the Circle of Courage to their lives in and out of school throughout their lives.

ADDENDUM NOTE:  For a powerful description of the First People’s Principles of Learning, check out Laura Tait.  Her explanantion with pictures and stories of her family is inspirational.

Be Kind Wherever You Go

 As every administrator in every school regularly does, I pulled our students together to talk  about our Code of Conduct.  We decided to divide primary and intermediate students into two smaller groups so I could tailor the conversation about RISE (Respect / Improve / Safe / Encourage  ) to each age group.  The primaries gathered for the discussion about expectations for behaviour. The big culminating question:  So what does RISE look like for a Tecumseh student?  Hands shoot up and I pick one from Cole Johnson’s K/1 class.  The response: “Be kind everywhere you go.”  Done.  The wisdom of the 5 year old rules the day!  The work to practice and reinforce the message continues. 


In Mr. Johnson’s class, that message took on a life of its own.  Mr. Johnson clearly  understood that the words of his student came with a special power to catalize his students. It became the class motto.  When he immortalized the words on a button, they became even more valued.  Then he handed them out to each staff member at the year-end breakfast.  As I stared at the button, the familiarity was there but not the exact context.  Cole Johnson looked at me and said “You remember!”    Cole breathed life into the moment.  He  had accomplished what every great teacher does on a daily basis – tapped the teachable moment.

As a previous Kindergarten teacher, I have a huge appreciation for those who walk that path.  Mr. Johnson’s students will be able to say “All I Really  Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” and perhaps publish their own rendition😃

Robert Fulghum (1988). All I Really Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten