The Dignity Pledge

The Dignity Pledge

As students step through the threshold of the room for the first time, you can see past school years etched onto their faces. Some have had wonderful experiences. Teachers were their friends. Learning was an adventure. Some students have had mixed experiences. Some classes were great, some terrible, some dull. The students come in with histories. They are complex and full of feeling. 

Given the fact some students are wary of any classroom, there is a need to acknowledge these fears explicitly right out of the gate. 

How do you signal that your classroom will be a safe space? There are no doubt lots of good ways to do it. Here’s the speech I’ve developed over the years:

“Welcome friends. It’s important to me that I say this to you when meeting for the first time. I have a three part pledge: 

Part One: I hereby pledge never to humiliate you, neither to your face nor behind your back. I understand that school can be a scary place. There are three sources of potential humiliation in schools. First, there’s the material. Some students have a fixed mindset and are afraid that they aren’t strong enough to succeed. You have within your skull the most complex object we know of in the universe. You all absolutely have the capacity to be successful, though it will take work. A second source of potential humiliation is the other kids. Young people often slip into a culture of humiliation as the dark forces of human psychology, like dominance, revenge, and exclusivity, warp relationships. A teacher can only do so much to help foster a friendlier culture, so it’s really up to all of you to be generous and patient with one another. You’ll have to make an effort to be kind. The final source of potential humiliation comes from the teacher. It’s tempting to control a classroom through tools of coercion. If you yell at kids, punish them, and make them feel stupid, you can achieve a quiet and orderly classroom, though you a pay a heavy price if the students won’t feel safe or end up hating the class. Therefore, I pledge not to use those techniques and to do what I can to ensure that you feel recognized as a unique, complex person with as much potential as any other person in the history of humanity. 

Part Two: I pledge to always be honest with you. I may not always have the right answer to your questions, but I’ll always do my best. I won’t censor complicated topics and I will acknowledge when I don’t know something. There are some topics that may remain outside the boundaries of this class, but when we run up against them, I’ll do my best to explain why we won’t pursue them. They usually have something to do with sex or violence, and I’ve been entrusted to protect your youthful innocence to a certain degree. 

Part Three: I will always believe in you. The human brain is a collection of roughly one hundred billion neurons connected by an ever-changing network of one hundred trillion synapses or connectors. Imagine the stars in the Milky Way connecting to one another by little strands that communicate both chemically and electrically. As far as we know, our brains, your brain, my brain, all of our brains, are the most complicated objects in the universe. There is no evidence that anyone has found the limits of the human brain either in storage capacity or in its huge potential to learn and grow. You will learn and grow. If you believe you can’t, if you believe that you’ve hit your saturation point of knowledge and skill, you’ve been terribly misinformed. You may not always believe in yourselves, but I will always believe in you. You will all struggle at some point and feel the bitter taste of frustration. But that doesn’t mean you’ve hit the edge of your capacity. It simply means you didn’t have the tools in your pocket to fix the problem you were facing. That’s part of being a human. You can always go back and get more tools. Failure is no tragedy. Giving up is a tragedy.” 

This pledge dovetails with our working definition of dignity: Dignity is the fundamental value of every human; recognizing that each individual embodies profound potential and experiences the full range of human emotions and needs. Respect is earned; dignity is innate.

From this moment forward, I have to work hard to fulfill this pledge. Actually, it was only hard at first. It has become increasingly easy. Efficiency comes with repetition, and the more I worked to see the potential in struggling kids, the easier I saw it. And when I began to look for underlying issues to explain their struggles instead of blaming weak character, the more solution-oriented I became. I was initially primed to write-off struggling students with tepid explanations involving innate character or genetics. This was an easy out for me. The nature of genes and character are beyond the reach of a nurturing teacher, so I was not duty bound to help. In fact, as I saw it then, helping might just be a waste of my time and attention – precious classroom resources. 

Every struggling student has a tremendously adaptable brain. When she drifts away, shuts down, or rebels, her brain is just adapting away from us rather than towards us. She seeks safety, and one way or another, she’ll find it. Even if it means avoiding all challenges. 

Student performance is far better predicted by a student’s habits, expectations, strategy sets, and environment than his or her underlying character. I’m ready to throw out the term character completely, though I know that it has a use beyond the innate traits. I worry that we are effectively giving up when we invoke concepts of innate character or genetics when discussing a student’s behavior or academic performance. What’s the point of implementing strategies to help a student who is innately slow or distractible or quiet? Teachers can’t fix genes or character. There is always an explanation behind a struggle. I may not always have a clear window into the issues involved, but there are always issues involved and there is no a priori reason to think that we can’t understand them and solve them. The physicist David Deutsch offers two compelling maxims that he believes apply to all human endeavors: 1. “Problems are inevitable. We survive, and thrive, by solving each problem as it comes up. And, since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier.” 

Our students will have problems. They will hit obstacles and struggle, and they will respond to these frustrations with a fairly predictable spectrum of behaviors. A tortured few will quit outright. A few others will roll up their proverbial sleeves and work out a solution. The majority in the middle will vacillate between avoidance and shorts spurts of renewed effort. Whether or not they overcome these obstacles has a lot to do with the community around them, the narratives available to explain what’s happening, and the models of habits and strategies presented to them. The second of Deutsch’s maxims is crucial to teaching: “…A complementary and equally important truth about people and the physical world is that Problems are soluble. By ‘soluble’ I mean that the right knowledge would solve them. It is not, of course that we can possess knowledge just by wishing for it; but it is in principle accessible to us.”

We won’t solve all of our students’ problems. But we can make progress and empower them with a set of tools and strategies and the optimism to ensure that they employ them whenever they find themselves stuck.