Posters on the wall
Each year as a classroom teacher I spent countless hours decorating my room, eager to create an environment that was pleasing to the eyes and the hearts of my students. While some teachers chose a different theme each year and decorated their walls accordingly, most of my wall space was occupied with motivational quotes or colorful posters that contained character buzz words like integrity or respect.
Early in my teaching career, I spent a lot of time referring to these posters as visual reminders. For example, if there was a heated argument on the playground between a few of my students, I would direct their attention to the poster and say, “I’d like for you to be that.” After all, we had spent the first two weeks of the school year discussing what each word meant. I even had each student take an oath that they would honor these values. Wasn’t that enough?
As the years progressed, I realized that the posters themselves weren’t going to make a difference. Therefore, I couldn’t just staple them on the wall and expect my students to honor them. Student behavior was not going to change as a result of a poster. Once I realized this, I made a commitment to doing two things which continue to serve as a foundation for the way I teach and parent.
#1 – I must live the principles I’m teaching.
My favorite definition for the word integrity is – the state of being whole and undivided. Put another way, your actions are directly aligned with your values. One of the biggest mistakes we make as teachers and parents is to ask our kids to think or behave in a way that we are not modeling ourselves. As you know, kids have an uncanny knack at recognizing a lack of integrity and in many cases they aren’t afraid to tell you. I can remember countless occasions when students would call me out by saying, “Why aren’t you doing that, Mr. Sissel?” In those moments, I found myself in a reactive state, often feeling as though the same rules didn’t apply to me. Regardless of the excuses I made in my mind, nothing changed the fact that I wasn’t living the principles I had asked them to live.
There’s a great story of Gandhi that illustrates this idea beautifully.
There was a six-year old boy living in the same Indian community as Gandhi. This boy had a very strong sweet tooth. He couldn’t resist sugar. Because he was diabetic, the sugar created painful boils all over his body.
His parents took him to the doctor, who said the boy must avoid all sweets; otherwise, the ailment would not go away. The parents nagged the boy every day to stop eating sugar, but this was a challenge the boy wasn’t willing to overcome.
In desperation, the boy’s mother came to Gandhi and asked if he could please convince her boy not to eat sweets. Gandhi said, “Come back in 15 days and I’ll speak to him then.” So the mother came back after 15 days. Gandhi took her son aside and spoke to him for a few minutes. The boy went home and immediately gave up sweets.
The mother was puzzled. She asked Gandhi later, “Why did you ask us to come back after 15 days? And what miracle did you perform to get my son to quit eating sweets?”
Gandhi replied that it wasn’t a miracle. He said, “When your boy first came to me, I too had been eating sugar.” He had told the boy that he couldn’t ask him to do something he, Gandhi, wasn’t willing to do himself.
#2 – I need to teach my students (my daughters) how to live these principles.
Once I made a commitment to live in accordance with the values I was asking my students to honor, I realized that I couldn’t just tell them why they needed to, I had to teach them how. The posters I mentioned earlier continued to be a staple in my classroom, but now I dedicated more time to giving my students tools and strategies that would bring these words to life. For example, instead of just saying, “Be respectful,” I taught them how to be aware of their own thoughts and feelings and recognize how they influence our behavior.
Five years after leaving the classroom, I continue to make these two a foundation of my teachings. While I admittedly make mistakes and fall short of perfection, I remain steadfast in my commitment to live the Lenses of Leadership principles and to teach our youth how to live them as well.
Guess what? You don’t have to teach a youth leadership class to make the same commitment. If you have children, I challenge you to live what you are teaching them and to give them various tools and strategies to learn how. If you are a teacher, I challenge you to live what you are teaching your students and to spend time each day showing them how.