Each week I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts with you about students, learning and school. Although many of us have the chance to chat between Monday and Friday, it is not possible for all of us to do so. By sharing a short reflection on Fridays, I hope to connect with you in a way that keeps our wished-for dialogue engaged. Beyond my formal duties as Head of School, I believe it is important for you to understand the encounters and insights that frame my week. Happily, the majority of these involve our students – their struggles and successes – whose growth and learning we are all here to serve.
I lent a book to a teacher a while back. It is one of my favourites called The Children’s Book of Virtues edited by William J. Bennett. It is an anthology of stories, fables and lessons whose aim is the time-honoured task of the moral education of the young. The tales are intended to train the heart and mind of children toward the good – and this involves many things. It involves precepts and rules, sometimes described as the do’s and don’ts of life with others. It involves explicit training in good habits. And it involves shining the light on the example of adults who, through their daily behaviour, show children how they take integrity and honesty seriously.
Among its authors is our ubiquitous friend, Aesop, that ancient Greek fabulist and storyteller. He is credited with admonishing us that the fastest way to lose what we call our good character is to lose our honesty by “failing to respect the truth of things”. Most of us learned this lesson in childhood when we were introduced to “the boy who cried wolf” or “the honest woodsman”. These fables depicting a failure of integrity are cautionary tales for children and adults alike. An understanding of their lessons is crucial to the culture of family, community and society.
How can we practice the virtue of honesty and integrity and how can we model it for children? By always speaking about people as if they were present. This does not always build trust, but doing the opposite is among the fastest destroyers of it.
Young people are very astute to cultural behaviours where integrity is lacking. They can tell when people manipulate or distort facts; bad-mouth others; resist or stifle new ideas; and engage in gossip or detraction. Thankfully, they can also see clearly the earmarks of integrity. They see when information is shared openly; mistakes are tolerated and encouraged as a way of learning; transparency is a practiced value; and people talk straight and go to the source to confront real issues.
These are the ways that the childhood lessons learned from Aesop activate example, precept and trustworthiness in the adults of tomorrow.
Relationships built on trust and openness are the foundations of success – from ancient Greece to the sandbox. The Children’s Book of Virtues is filled with examples of such stories about right and wrong and good and bad, all of which have stood the test of time. They have endured, in part, because they are fascinating and appeal to children’s imaginations. They have a better chance of accompanying them into adulthood when they appeal to their moral sense as well.