America’s public schools have been called a laboratory for society. In this edition of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is, Jacques Benninga of Fresno State’s School of Education says that if that’s the case, teachers have responsibilities that go far beyond promoting academic achievement.
For American schools to meet their mandate of preparing all students for college or career readiness they not only have to teach academics, but also how to interact well with others. Socialization skills are a set of learned behaviors just as much as math or science. Schools and the society they reflect are the most influential agents through which children learn to get along.
Although most of what we read about the purpose of school is focused on academic achievement, there is increased understanding that if students attend schools where they are bullied or otherwise made to feel unsafe, their achievement suffers. No one performs at his or her best in a threatening environment, or one in which they do not get along. Children with poor socialization skills are less likely to form healthy relationships as adults, more likely to experience peer rejection, and have a greater likelihood to run into trouble with the law.
Our schools understand this. The agency I direct at Fresno State seeks such input. Our Bonner Center for Character Education conducts an annual program to recognize schools for excellence in character education. We ask schools throughout Central California to describe how they promote core ethical values in their schools, how those values are intentionally infused throughout the curriculum, and how the adults at their schools promote and model fairness, , caring and respect. The results are refreshing. The Bonner Center has been conducting this program for almost three decades and each year we hear from more schools.
They describe their programs to help students understand how their behavior impacts others. They describe peer mediation programs in which students help their schoolmates resolve interpersonal conflicts. They describe holding class meetings to set goals and norms and identify and solve classroom problems, and programs that teach students proactively about expectations and managing frustrations. Such programs exist in many schools and are a hallmark of our pluralistic democracy. They make for a calmer, more accepting campus environment and establish the foundation for a better society. Adults in those schools understand their roles as models and take that role seriously. Students learn how to behave from them.
But schools cannot go this road alone. It is difficult to teach and model concern for others when examples outside school do not reinforce those taught and modeled in school. When students see other role models engaging in frivolous, non-committed relationships, being arrested and getting away with careless or violent acts, or otherwise behaving in anti-social ways, a message is sent that its ok not to adhere to lessons learned in school. It’s a truism that if we want our children to become moral people, we as adults must be more conscious of our own behavior.
After many years of close observation, I believe that our schools are a treasure whose socialization lessons, if emulated in the broader society, will help us create a more competent and cooperative nation.
Schools alone cannot be charged with this important role.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.