One of my guiding quotes for life is by Maya Angelou: Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better. But what I’ve been stuck thinking about lately is, if I am doing the right thing, do the reasons why I’m doing it matter?
This week I was able to take a few students to a leadership workshop put on by the WE Day group. In it, they talked about the difference between simply taking on an awareness or fundraising project, and learning WHY the project is important. Essentially, that context is crucial for empathy, understanding, and long term changes in attitude.
For most of us, it’s not that hard to do the right thing. And usually, the right thing is pretty apparent. What is more difficult is getting to that WHY part.
I’m a self-professed rule-follower. A lot of the time I am doing what I’m supposed to, well, because I’m supposed to do it. For our students, we have a multitude of expectations in terms of behavior and work habits. So does the world. Most kids will follow these out of compliance. Most adults will too. But is that good enough? Is it good enough that you are following the norms if you don’t understand why we expect the courtesy of not interrupting? Is it good enough if you can’t translate that into another space and place? (*rink behavior anyone?*)
Consequences work, but should we do the right thing simply out of fear? I don’t need the RCMP to be at every construction zone running radar for me to not speed through them, and my heart rate jumps a bit when I see them, even though I’m not doing anything wrong! But do I slow down for the speed cameras in the city? I sure do. I don’t want to pay a ticket any more than the next person. Does it make lasting changes to my driving habits? That’s more debatable. In my classroom, I’m not big on using rules, and try to reframe them as ‘courtesies’ instead, with one exception. If a substitute teacher takes the time to leave your name for misbehaviour, it’s an automatic detention. The expectation is clear. Yet knowing full-well there is a consequence, why are there always names on that list?
I don’t think we can underestimate the power of obligation either. Maybe this is more for adults, but even though there are worthwhile endeavors, both in and out of school, I find myself committing to things out of guilt. Feeling that I need to do it, because no one else can. Doing things because you know it will make it easier for another person, even if not for yourself. For our students, even when given a lot of student voice, choice, and ownership of their learning, it can still feel obligatory. They will do things for a myriad of reasons, but not the main reason we want them to: because they care deeply about it.
For the most part, I try to do the right thing because I try to be a good person. But there’s a line somewhere where the things we love become chores. Where the passion plummets.
Rekindling that desire isn’t easy, but it’s doable.
But what really scares me is seeing kids who don’t care about anything. Not issues. Not people. Not the world they live in. And definitely not the world beyond themselves.
Doing the right thing is infinitely harder if you don’t value anything. What happens when you know better, but don’t choose to do better?
Last week, I felt really bad, and I don’t feel that way very often. I try to be cognizant of other people’s feelings, mostly because I feel really guilty when I hurt someone, even inadvertently. But this wasn’t just a guilty-bad. Nope, it was more than that. And I didn’t like that feeling. At all.
For the first time in a long time, I truly thought about the power of restoration. It was a feeling so strong that I knew I would do whatever I could to put things right.
And maybe that’s what is missing in those times we don’t choose to do the right thing, or we do the right thing, but not for the right reasons…the restorative aspect. The “why.” Looking someone in the face and seeing them as a person. Looking beyond what was happening to consider why it happened. Looking beyond my own perspective. Not just saying sorry because its expected, or because you feel guilty, or because you should… but because you understand why you should. Like I was reminded at the leadership conference, understanding how/why your behaviour impacts others is an empathetic response that leads to long term change.
“Emotional regulation isn’t instinctive, it’s learned.” Which is why we make our own children say sorry when they are little. Excuse me, when they bump into someone. Please. And thank you. We need to continue to do the same thing with them as they grow, but with the additional understanding of who they affected and why.
I’ve ordered a book by Maynard and Weinstein that talks about working with students around the values of: respect, relationships, responsibility, repairing the harm, and reintegrating back into routine. “Holding students directly and personally responsible for their behavior is what sparks intrinsic change. Mediations give students insight into the real impact of their behavior. Combine them with restorative practices and you have the formula for empathy, positive culture, and lasting change.”
If I am doing the right thing, does it really matter my reasons why I’m doing it? Yep. Yep, it does.
Hang in there everybody! Tervetuloa. Tawâw.
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