Developing the Desire to "Do Right" by John Gifford, Head of Middle School
During the first week of school, students in my Civics class discussed the dark side of human nature. Using a quote by James Madison as a springboard for conversation, we decided that Madison did not have a great deal of faith in how men would behave if left to their own devices.
"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
Students thought that Madison was suggesting that a greater external force (a responsible system of government) was an appropriate influence to help guide human behavior. At first, students in my class didn’t want to believe this. Most of us would like to have faith in people to do the right thing—simply because it is the right thing to do, and not because of external pressures. Still, after some discussion, most agreed that there were situations during which the temptation to do wrong was hard to resist. When the penalties seem low and the rewards seem high, people can make decisions that they would acknowledge are uncharitable, unfair or even wrong.
I have written before about how we hope to instill good decision-making skills in young people. A few of the past month’s more disturbing headlines, however, led me to think that again, it was a worthy topic to highlight.
Helping young people to have the strength to do the right thing, even when it is easy to benefit from doing wrong, is one of the many goals of the Nobles experience. Part of the work is simply to make expectations clear. Using varied language and from multiple mouthpieces, we call out actions that cause harm and praise desirable behavior.
While a small example, at the Middle School Pie Drive (in its own right: another example of the community reinforcing good behavior) I told the students that there were going to be “phantoms” roaming the service activities. Middle Schoolers would not know which adult was taking mental notes of who was most helpful, cooperative and engaged, but they knew that they were out there. During our "Blue and White" games, it was the excellent work of a group of apple-peeling boys that caught Ms.Glenn’s eye and drove the White team (Class VI) into the lead. Some might say that their good deeds are cheapened when there is a reward system in place. I believe that modeling what is “good” is a key component to developing students who choose the right path.
With that in mind, Nobles has long felt that the most important action that it takes to further its goal to build ethical decision-making in students is to hire well. For the first decade of life, parents and guardians provide the most impactful examples of behavior for young people. As students hit the Middle School years teachers and peers tend to gain sway. Peers won’t always make the best decisions so it puts pressure on the adults to set good examples as consistently as possible. Our commitment to hiring good classroom teachers who also invest in good mentoring relationships with students is vital.
The ultimate goal? As our mission states, we hope that our graduates will be, in some way, committed to “leadership for the public good.” But I understand that the Middle School steppingstone en route to that goal is for young people to focus on the impacts of their day-to-day actions. They should gain an understanding - through our messages, activities, classes and, most importantly through their substantive interactions with their teachers - about the best ways to conduct themselves. They should start, at least, to figure out how to “do right.”