School Climate & Safety Opinion

Language, Behavior, Moral Standards, and Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 12, 2017 5 min read
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Moral and civil behavior by all, toward all, is an essential aspect of a safe and welcoming learning environment. While focused on student achievement rates and teacher performance in the service of student success, creating and maintaining the environment in which both can flourish is foundational.

The standards of behavior we establish for ourselves as leaders, for our teachers, and for our students is important. Standards guide us toward generally acceptable social interactions and behaviors. In schools, beyond civility, there are codes of conduct that explicitly spell out what is acceptable and what is not. Educators strive for fairness when doling out the discipline required to keep to the rules. It seems, though, not so in our general society at this moment. Forgive us as we look back again at the campaign rhetoric.

Will High School Locker Rooms Be Next?
The outrage against president-elect Donald Trump’s “braggadocious” disrespect for women revealed in an audio/video of him as he spoke with Billy Bush was fueled as it was played and replayed. There is no need to revisit those inexcusable expressions of disrespect. Ultimately, the explanation that the tape had caught “locker room talk” seemed to make it publically excusable. The excuse was expanded to include it was years ago, he is different now, he didn’t really mean it, and he was just talking. Yet, unlike the goal in in schools, the response to the two men, Donald Trump and Billy Bush, was markedly different. Donald Trump won the election and Billy Bush was fired. In schools, we strive for fairness. It seems in the larger world there may be a different rule.

It did strike a chord so loud that, even during Senator Jeff Sessions’ recent confirmation hearing, he was asked explicitly about the contents of the tape.

”... is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked Sessions. “Clearly, it would be,” Sessions responded. Leahy then went on to ask whether Sessions would investigate and prosecute Trump or any other high-ranking male federal official accused of an act like Trump is heard describing on the Access Hollywood tape. Sessions said, “The president is subject to certain lawful restrictions and they would be required to be applied by the appropriate law enforcement official ... If appropriate, yes.” (NY Times)

The committee members were seeking an explicit statement about the acceptable behavior and illegal behaviors.

It does trouble us that the “locker room” rationale was so readily accepted and carried such a common understanding. Why? Well, so far as we know, the first locker room experiences in the lives of most children happen in our schools. Does this tape represent that experience?

We have read about, and some have experienced the results of inappropriate locker room conversations and behaviors by members of sports teams. We have also read about, and unfortunately some have experienced, members of teams objectifying female students. In the worst of cases, even raping female students. Gay and lesbian students may have had equally offensive experiences in those locker rooms. Beyond the locker room excuse lies the adage “boys will be boys”. This cannot be perpetuated.

Donald Trump’s predatory behavior raised a gender issue. Schools have both an opportunity and an obligation to check into our schools’ cultures and attitudes and protect and support students. In this we are encouraged by John McCain. He modeled the action of a man with strong moral fiber when, four years ago, one of his supporters referred to Mr. Obama as an “Arab”. John McCain wasted no time stating clearly that Obama was not an “Arab”. He claimed the microphone stating his belief that Obama is a “decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have differences with.” Both Donald Trump and Billy Bush missed their chance to exhibit moral leadership. Instead, like surprised adolescents, they got caught and “locker room” talk became public news fodder.

This “news” was put in our laps so wouldn’t we be foolish and may be irresponsible if we didn’t have a conversation about those rooms in our schools. Not because, we believe these behaviors are going on in all those rooms (they may be in some and it needs to be corrected) but because sports team members are often student leaders and their moral leadership on these issues can make a really big difference.

A Slippery Slope
Accompanying disrespectful locker-room gender talk is the slide into homophobic language and actions, race and religion based expressions of bias. Morality and civility cannot be separated from the work done in schools. Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘moral’ as

a : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical <moral judgments>
b : expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior moral poem>
c : conforming to a standard of right behavior
d : sanctioned by or
operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment moral obligation>
e : capable of right and wrong action
moral agent>

That is clear. Morality is acting upon what one knows to be right and wrong. But we observe a growing practice of dismissing civility and respectful dialogue under the label of ‘political correctness’. We disagree. Our society will be well served and well lead if we carry a concern about the ‘other’.

The Importance of Civility in a Learning Environment
As long as two years ago there was a
CNN report of Yale University’s study that found infants as young as 3 months old demonstrated the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. Civility, however, is a developed behavior and one to which educators can contribute. Let ‘boys be boys’ mean a new thing, that boys’ behavior, like the girls with whom they are growing and learning, become respectful and strong in their defense of the weak and of truth. Then, the environment is fertile for learning and we are less likely to have to worry about ‘locker room’ language and behavior for presidents of the next generation.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.