The old adage “Just be yourself” looks good on paper but gets pretty scary in the real world when we must rely on our own instincts to make decisions. Dangers abound. What if we make a mistake and hurt somebody? These fears– fueled by lack of confidence– cause us to look to other people to do the thinking and acting for us. Our role models inspire us to be better, but sometimes they become convenient ways to escape the responsibility we have to be the best versions of ourselves.
Everybody respects heroes because they rise above average to do extraordinary things. Common wisdom sees heroism as something you attain by serving others. It’s that firefighter who saves lives or that doctor who finds a cure for a disease. But maybe heroism doesn’t require such remarkable work. Maybe if we just put trust in who we are and emanate confidence, then that will make us a hero.
Trust requires that you must set aside your feelings of suspicion and agree to work with people in good faith. Sometimes, trust is so hard to attain, whether it be on the playground, in the classroom or with your friends. Yet, to live and solve problems with other people, we need to trust them. Trusting others will sometimes lead us into grim disappointment but it can also restore our faith in humanity. Building trust is a skill and must be practiced over time to see and reap its benefits.
Sometimes doing the right thing means that you will face scorn and ridicule from other people. Often this opposition takes the form of angry words thrown against us. As much as these words hurt us, there is a different kind of pain we feel when those in whom we place our trust end up letting us down. Friends and enemies have the power to injure us and so we must find strategies for coping with both situations.
Students of every age struggle with moral decisions about how to balance their own individual needs with the needs of others. Either way they decide, there is sacrifice. Focus on the individual and they must sacrifice others. Focus on others and they must sacrifice their own individual needs. Clear answers are hard to come by. What’s important is that students make a commitment to reflect deeply on ethical decisions before they make them and take responsibility for the decisions they make.
All students have strong opinions about friends. They are in the process of making friendships and ending them. Students have different perspectives on how many friends they should have. Some believe that friends should come in large numbers. Others believe the word ‘friend’ should be reserved for the very few. Forming healthy friendships is an important part of human development which requires thoughtful reflection and ethical decision-making.
When students hear the mantra “You can make a difference in the world,” there’s often an eye-roll. Students struggle to see how the actions of a few can have big consequences for the many. The fallout of this attitude is that many won’t decide to participate in that school-wide fundraiser, start that club or vote in the next election. The impulse to remain apathetic is strong but, as Mead reminds us, it just takes a different way of thinking to liberate us to act.
Students understand the dynamics of leadership firsthand, both from the perspective of being a follower of their teachers and being role models for their peers. They have strong opinions about how leaders should behave and what ethical responsibilities they have to others. Central to the challenge of being a leader is to know when to be out in front and when to follow the will of the people.
The ability to work in a team is touted by teachers, employers and coaches as an indispensable skill. Alone, people can accomplish great things but when people work as a team the potential for success skyrockets. Students know this in theory but when it comes to accepting the reality of working with others who have different styles and motivations, all of a sudden teamwork feels like a heavy burden.
Students learn a great deal about respect inside the classroom walls. Not only do they pay attention to how their teachers and classmates treat them, but they also carry expectations for how they should act in return. Mutual respect in the classroom is a noble goal in theory, but hard to achieve because either the student or the teacher is unable to hold up his/her end of the deal. Without mutual respect, learning is elusive and the classroom is quickly gripped by misbehavior and personal conflict.
Respect is something all students want. The question is how to get it. Students are told that if they hold themselves in high regard, people will want to be around them. They are also told that respect comes from doing things for others. Though the path towards respect is different for people, all agree that it is a worthwhile pursuit and leads to greater self-awareness and self-efficacy.
Cooperation is not a foreign concept for students. They are told at all stages of life that it is important to cooperate with others. It is also the case that they are expected to be self-reliant and not afraid to accept the hard work that comes with doing things alone.