Once again our country was horrified to see a mass school shooting in a place where all families should feel safe to send their kids...school. As the aftermath unfolds it feels different. It feels like there is an increased urgency and heightened awareness for something to change. Maybe it is because students are actually the ones leading the change movement. Maybe it’s because we actually aren’t numb to something so horrific and heartbreaking that it leaves you without words. Maybe it’s because deep down we realize that without change of some kind, we will continue to have these same conversations over and over again. No matter what your stance is on this issue, or what you believe needs to change, I hope that we all can agree on the following three things:
1) We were built to be relational, yet we are more isolated than ever before as a society.
From the time we are newborns, we are seeking connection. Studies done on premature babies show us that babies who are regularly held in infancy compared to those that are not go home weeks earlier, have greater cognitive growth, and are able to cope with stress at a much higher ability. We were built to be relational and we have smart phones, tablets, computers, watches, etc. that have us connected like never before, but we also have a young generation that feels more isolated than ever before. Young people have the promise of connection at their fingertips, yet rarely does that electronic device deliver on the real thing. We need to teach students strong relationship skills including how to deal with one’s emotions, how to reach out, connect, pay attention, and actively listen.
2) We need to stop living for happiness, and start living for purpose.
At the National Character Lab Conference led by Angela Duckworth, Duckworth mentioned that, in her research, the most successful people were those who have a deep “single-purpose why.” They knew why they woke up every day and had a deeper reason for living. It was a goal greater than simply graduating from high school, which was the average response given by a high school student on their purpose for showing up. Duckworth noted that graduating was a good goal, but not a deep single purpose why. When we teach students about purpose we push them to think beyond “me” and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. When asked how to teach purpose to students, Duckworth mentioned two things. First, she said that it is not our job to teach students what their purpose is, but that we should get them grappling with their purpose. One way we can do that is to teach students about character development and putting character into action - relationships naturally foster purpose. The second thing she mentioned is that all teachers should be sharing their purpose with their students at the beginning and midway point of the year. Why do you do what you do? Students learn from our words and most importantly by our example.
3) Everyone needs character development.
If you were to ask the question, “Who needs character development?” sometimes you will see people pause because they think about the most difficult person that they have to deal with each day - a tough student, family member, or friend. In reality, the answer is EVERYONE needs character development. In fact, when I pause to think, I quickly come to the realization that I need character development on more days than I would like to admit. When we create a culture of character and focus on teaching the whole child instead of just test-takers, we will begin to universally address an underlying need that is at the heart of the majority of issues our world is facing. When we put a focus on character development, we begin to address gaps in things like patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment. When we focus on character development, we bring back into focus the importance of human connection and dealing with pain in ways that heal and bring us closer instead of ways that tear us apart. When we focus on character development, we begin talking about love - not love based on a feeling, but a deliberate choice that is unconditional. If love was taught intentionally and, as a result, exercised more in the world...it may very well be the antidote we are looking for.
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.