Teaching Integrity


Students at the High School of Language and Innovation collaborating in science class. 


The first week of school, I learned that most of my students didn’t know the word “integrity.”

As a tone setter, my assistant principals and I visited classes and did a presentation around our core values: integrity, perseverance, respect, and responsibility. We’re using a new approach, Responsibility Centered Discipline (RCD).  In RCD, we coach kids to make choices that embody these core values, rather than simply reminding them of rules.  An RCD conversation would go like this: “Jaime, I love when you participate in this class because you have a great sense of humor.  Your participation makes a difference.  When you stopped doing your work and put your head down, you weren’t showing perseverance.  If you can keep showing perseverance and never give up, you’ll not only learn, but you’ll be a role model and leader for your classmates.  What can you do when you get frustrated with the work and want to put your head down?”  This conversation inspires Jaime to find her own way to persevere.  A more “rule-based” approach would be, “In this class, you’re not allowed to put your head down,” which could easily be argued or dismissed by the student.

When we presented the core values to students, most had heard of “respect” and “responsibly” and could give examples. A few had heard of “perseverance.”  Most had never heard of “integrity.”  (Note: nearly all of our students are newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, so this was not surprising.)

I planned a little skit with a teacher, Ms. Cho, to illustrate “integrity.”  I held a pretend $50 bill and then accidentally “dropped” it as I walked out of the room.  Ms. Cho then picked up the bill and put it in her pocket.  When I asked her if she saw the $50, she pretended she hadn’t.

We then re-did the skit to illustrate “integrity”: as soon as Ms. Cho saw me drop the bill, she ran after me to return it.  We defined “integrity” as being honest, as doing the right thing even when no one is watching or when others are doing the wrong thing.  We talked about situations like being tempted to cheat.  We also talked about physical fights: the choice of cheering on a fight, trying to stop the fight, or walking away from it and not adding further energy to it.

Later in the week, two 9th grade boys got into a physical scuffle in a classroom.  What had started as teasing ended up in kicking and a headlock.  The boys were both sent out of the classroom and my assistant principals and I used RCD to help the boys identify where they went wrong, and for them to plan how they could repair the friendship.

What was inspiring was the behavior of the class.  The other students in the class had immediately jumped in to separate the boys and stop the fight.  Then they had simply gotten back to work.

I visited the class and congratulated the students and the teacher for stopping the fight and quickly returning to work. I asked the students what value they had exhibited.  They peered on the wall.

“Integrity,” several of them answered.

Still later in the week, we had an assembly where professional singers performed.  Most tried to listen even though the music was unfamiliar.  Other students made jokes or chatted during the performance.  Those around them struggled between paying attention and joining in the jokes.  I reminded them of “integrity” and “respect.”  In many cases it worked, while in other cases, students struggled to be their own person and listen to the performers.

I didn’t get frustrated with the students who were following peers who were misbehaving.  I realized how hard it is to not follow peer pressure and that I’d be wise to not under-estimate the power of that pressure.  And I realized that it’s only September and the 6th day of school.  We have an entire year to teach our students to embody “integrity.”

Photo credit: Julie Nariman



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