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Online July 2009 | Volume 66
Revisiting Social Responsibility
Sanford N. McDonnell
When students accept responsibility for holding one another to the highest standards, everyone wins.
One of the most overwhelming negative feelings a young person can have is that of being on the outside, not being accepted, loved, or respected by others. Such feelings can have a major effect on the way a young person views school, learning, and life. Eric Harris, one of the students who opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999 wrote in his suicide note to the community, "Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead." A classmate of Dylan Klebold, the other teen shooter, said, "Dylan really felt unloved. He wasn't so bad. He was lonely." Incidentally, both Harris and Klebold were A
The Columbine shooting was an extreme case of two teenagers' pain erupting into violence. We will never know how other aspects of Harris's and Klebold's relationships, families, and emotional makeup affected them or tipped the scales into tragedy. We will continue to debate how such tragedies can be averted and how much of a role school culture can realistically play, but we know that a school atmosphere that nurtures respectful relationships is something we want for all students.
In schools all across the world, young people tease, bully, and exclude one another daily. The consequences of these actions can go beyond a general feeling of unhappiness among the targeted kids, causing these students to engage in violence, drop out of school, or join gangs to feel respected. One way to create a more positive, inclusive culture is to hold all students responsible for becoming—and for helping peers become—the best people they can be.
I call this approach "collective responsibility." Imagine the positive change to our world if every parent, educator, student, and professional leader focused on helping his or her peers to become the best individuals possible. Creating a critical mass of teachers and students who are discharging that responsibility could elevate the character of our families, schools, and corporations—indeed our entire society. I have seen this approach used successfully in many schools that were named National Schools of Character by the Character Education Partnership.
For adults and students to discharge that responsibility, they must learn and practice the art of caring confrontation. David Augsberger's 2009 book, Caring Enough to Confront presents the following guidelines for effective confrontation:
School leaders and teachers can integrate caring confrontation into instruction, student work, and the broader school environment. Here are eight ways to foster collective responsibility at school:
Effective confrontation is taught most easily in situations in which every confronter is clearly trying to help a peer learn to improve an existing talent. Writing workshops, music programs, or sports teams are often good places to start. By contrast, an errant student who is being corrected for slacking off, lying, or cheating knows he or she is being criticized for misconduct and may get defensive or tune out. In such cases, the confronter must be a more skillful practitioner of the five guidelines described here.
Collective responsibility is a challenging but powerful practice for building character and improving academic performance. To do it well, we must first learn and practice the art of caring confrontation. It's worth the effort. Students who learn this art and take responsibility for bringing out the best in others will reap great benefits, not only in school but also throughout their lives.
Augsberger, D. (2009). Caring enough to confront. Ventura, CA: Regal.
Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Editor's note: See also "Positive Confrontation: One Practice, Many Benefits," Good Things to Do: Expert Suggestions for Fostering Goodness in Kids, edited by David Streight, published by the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, 2009.
Sanford N. McDonnell is Chairman Emeritus of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Chairman Emeritus of the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C., and Chairman of CHARACTERplus in St. Louis, Missouri; 314-323-2233.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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