The wisdom of German writer, artist and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been on my mind a lot lately: If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming. What are your initial thoughts about his claim? And what are the implications when working with our students? At our School of Character, we are one big family. Daily morning meetings bring us together and give us a chance to connect; Social Contracts hang in a prominent place to remind us how we’ve promised to act not only when things are going our way, but also during times of hardship and challenge. But how do we manage to keep from treating students as they are and move to treating them as they might be?
We’ve adopted this year’s theme – Character Is Our Super Power! – as more than just a slogan. When we treat our students like superheroes, guess what they become? The two I-statements on our school shirt logo – I can. I care. – are more than just a catchy phrase. They are tenets that we live by. That’s why we spelled it out on the fence in front of our school.
When we believe that students can, when we show them that they can, and when we step away and let them show us that they can, guess what happens? That’s right, they can! In the book Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey points to brain research that suggests that children thrive on choices because choices “trigger the release of the brain’s optimal thinking chemicals. These chemicals, known as endorphins, increase motivation, reduce stress, create positive attitudes, and foster an optimistic ‘I can’ attitude. In short, the child experiences a general sense of well-being and confidence.” (p.139) Who wouldn’t want that?
Let’s look at Caine, a young entrepeneur from the Caine’s Arcade video that’s gone viral. He took his love for arcade games to another level when he decided he wanted to build his own arcade. His father not only encouraged that idea, but put a space aside in his small auto-parts business for his son to bring his idea to life. And Caine’s one customer got such a kick out of a kid with a cardboard arcade that he not only frequented the place, but also got his friends and family to drop by and play. Dr. Bailey adds that we get more of what we focus on. What are you focusing on in your character building to empower your superheroes with voice and choice and an “I can” attitude?
Consider what author John C. Maxwell meant when he said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” So innately perceptive, children figure out pretty quickly if and how much their teachers care about them. That’s why the “I care” part of our slogan starts with a caring adult. Caring is more than just a feeling; it’s an action. Think of caring as thinking with your heart. We cannot expect children to care about something or someone until we, as their mentors, show them how. Kindness, after all, is a learned behavior.
I recently had a chance to test-drive this assertion with my sons. As some of you know, my van was hit head-on last month while I was driving home from school. The news spread through Friendswood like wild fire and friends too numerous to count put caring into action. They stopped by to visit and they brought meals so that I didn’t have to cook for an entire month. They sent emails of cheer and texts to see how I was doing. They called me on the telephone to see how they could help. They drove me to my doctor appointments. Students made cards, delivered in batch after batch until they numbered almost seven hundred. Friends and family from faraway also prayed for me and sent cards and flowers to wish me well. One counseling colleague in Iowa even held a Penny-A-Thon to make a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.) in my name.
My sons could not believe all of the people who jumped in to help us out. They got to experience those acts of kindness and compassion firsthand. In fact, we are teaching each time we are in the presence of a child. As a result of this incident, I can predict with certainty what my own boys might do the next time someone they care about is injured in a collision.
Not only do we show students how to care for others, we also teach them to care about themselves and their work. We work together to discover their spark and passion at a young age. We coach them to never give up as they reach for their dreams. We show them that anything worth having is worth working hard to attain. And we find out what their currency is so that we can reinforce their movement in the right direction. We help them set short-term goals along the way to their end goal and we encourage creating a Plan B for when Plan A doesn’t work out. We give our students opportunities to practice in a safe environment and we celebrate with them when they achieve success. We cry with them when they mess up and we cheer them on so that they’ll use failures as an opportunity for growth rather than an excuse to quit. “I care” – two very small words with very big implications. How do your students know that you care? And how can they show you that they care?
It was inventor Henry Ford who said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” We think he’s right. Now, where is that superhero cape?
Check out more of Barbara Gruener’s articles on her blog here.