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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Isn’t It Time We Redefine Honor Roll?

By Thomas R. Guskey — March 08, 2020 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Thomas R. Guskey, senior research scholar at the University of Louisville.

Educators today have launched major efforts to help student achieve specific non-academic goals, especially those associated with social and emotional learning. These efforts stem from recognition that factors other than academic achievement often have profound influence on students’ success in school and beyond.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research are investigating the importance of student qualities such as perseverance, grit, tenacity, and self-discipline. Investigators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory are studying the value of empathy, perspective-taking, self-efficacy, and growth mindset. This work will help establish the importance of such skills and aid educators in efforts to foster their development in students.

Notably absent in nearly all these efforts, however, is trait of honor. This is particularly ironic since few other personal traits have been held in higher esteem or valued longer throughout history than that of individual honor.

Honor can be either a noun or verb. As a noun it generally means high respect, great esteem, or adherence to what is right, similar to integrity or honesty. As a verb, honor means to regard with great respect, to fulfill an obligation or to keep a promise.

The Girl Scout Promise and the Boy Scout Oath, for example, both begin with the phrase, “On my honor ...” When either a Girl Scout or Boy Scout makes a solemn pledge, they end with the phrase, “Scouts’ honor.”

One of the highest awards offered by the U.S. Department of State is the Distinguished Honor Award given in recognition of exceptionally outstanding service resulting in achievements of marked national or international significance. Due to the strict requirements of this award, only two members of the Foreign Service below the rank of Ambassador have ever received it.

Honor serves as the central value in every branch of the military. The Honor Code at each of the military academies defines a system of ethics and code of conduct for cadets studying there. The Honor Code at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, for example, states, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

The U.S. Army Core Values similarly makes honor a foundational element, defined as “a matter of carrying out, acting, and living the values of respect, duty, loyalty, selfless service, integrity and personal courage in everything you do.” The most prestigious recognition that may be awarded to a U.S. military service member is the Medal of Honor. It is also the oldest, continuously issued decoration of the U.S. armed forces.

Unfortunately, according to Terry Newell, author of the 2015 best-seller To Serve with Honor, the concept of honor has been lost in public service in modern times. Newell, who spent nearly forty years in senior positions in the federal government, argues that although honor should pervade all those who serve in government, today it is confined only to those in the military. His book is an impassioned call to restore right conduct and honor to their needed places in public service.

In our quest as educators to help students develop 21st Century Skills and become College and Career ready, it seems that we, too, have lost sight of the importance of honor. We focus on the qualities and characteristics that contribute to persons’ professional or financial success, but we neglect what makes that success meaningful. We ignore important questions about whether the means used to gain that success were good, fair, and honest. Is success worth having or a goal worth achieving if we sacrifice our honor and integrity along the way?

It’s time for educators to make honor a core value in schools. It’s time to build honor into our curriculums and establish it as one of the primary social and emotional learning goals we work to help students achieve.

We certainly want students to strive for success and to revel in the recognition that comes from that success. But we must also help student understand that just as important as success is how you gain it. No achievement in any endeavor is worth the sacrifice of your honor, dignity, or integrity.

It’s also time for educators to broaden the definition of Honor Roll in schools to reflect not simply academic achievement but truly honorable actions by students. Let’s name students to the Honor Roll who make special efforts to include those who are different and students who intervene to prevent someone from being bullied in school or out of school. Let’s include students who set aside their own self-interests to help other students on difficult tasks or assignments. Let’s acknowledge students for acts of kindness, generosity, empathy, and civic responsibility. Let’s recognize students who put others before themselves and champion the cause of social justice.

We need to move beyond the traits that contribute to students’ professional or career success to consider what will help them become persons of honor, dignity and integrity. We need to assist students in developing the skills that will not only help them succeed in the world today, but will guide them in building a better world for tomorrow. Most important, we need to recognize students whose selfless acts bring honor to themselves, to their families, and to our schools in the process. These are the students who will make us proudest to say, “Yes, I was their teacher.”

Connect with Tom Guskey on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.