All students will achieve their maximum potential by becoming responsible, productive citizens and life-long learners.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Character Challenge: Gracious

This week’s character trait at Seekonk High School is Gracious.

Each week as new traits are announced, I cannot help but wonder three things.  First, is this working? Second, how can I get it to work better?  Finally, if all these traits are connected, am I approaching it the wrong way by singling them out?  As I was looking through material to jog my mind for this post, I thought about the relationships between traits along with the idea that I have been telling students to try small things.  I have promised that these in turn will become larger.  What I haven’t promised is that they are not alone in this endeavor and that affects their poise.  Audrey Hepburn said it best when she explained that walking “with the knowledge that you are never alone” builds poise.  So now I believe I must change my focus to one of togetherness if this challenge is to make the difference of which it is capable.  So, without further ado…

Vocabulary.com defines gracious as, "kind, courteous, and compassionate."  The site goes on to explain that “Gracious descends from the Latin word for good will.”  I find that the definition or etymology of this word is not the issue.  The problem lies in the application of this trait in a socially contextualized high school setting.

Mark Twain made an excellent point when he said; “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”  When you are kind to anyone in a high school setting (or at any level for that matter) everyone sees it and in at least some small way, reacts to it.  It gives pause.  The greater the act, the greater the pause.  No matter if it is a smile or inward thought by an uninvolved witness or a comment/helping hand by someone who wishes to be more involved; people notice and therefore share a moment.  The person responsible could never be alone in such a situation.  So take the time to build community by creating that connection.  If you question whether or not it is a good time to act, pay heed to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He said; “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

Being courteous is usually referred to as having manners; however that sometimes gets lost in translation.  Many of us instantly think of those “old-fashioned” formal shows of politeness.  What is more meaningful and capable of being adopted is the idea of thoughtfulness.  The sincerity found in a quick thank you that expresses a certain level of gratitude that sets the stage for a successful, interpersonal interaction both at that moment and in the future is one such display.  We can all exercise this trait if we regularly considerate and responsive to people’s current situations.  It is important to acknowledge that people exist in their own, personal experience that is no more or less important than ours based upon how we perceive them at that moment.  Once we treat someone with respect and dignity, we are instantaneously part of a larger interaction that has an unknown lasting effect.

While compassion usually comes easy on the heels of kind and courteous behavior, it is not always automatic with students.  Based upon the idea of wanting to be part of a larger crowd and an inherent (developmentally speaking) uncertainty of who they are, students (according to Brene Brown) have difficulty practicing “compassion when they are struggling with their own authenticity.”  Therein lies the problem when it comes to consistently displaying compassion.  Karen Armstrong notes, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge….”  This part of the larger trait (gracious) may well be the most important and difficult.  For any of us to practice, it takes a moment of thought before responding in an attempt to assess the larger picture to determine how we may be a better version of ourselves; even if just for a moment.

Practically Speaking
This is all well and good theoretically speaking, but how do we begin?  Where do we start so that students:
·         notice they are not alone in attempting to improve the culture by working on their character;
·         understand that by recognizing other peoples perspectives they become to know themselves; and
·         start with small steps that truly make a difference?

To further develop the ability to be gracious, we should all try these:

  1. Put yourself in other peoples’ positions to help understand the foundations of their beliefs and actions.
  2. Do what you can to help others.  Everyone’s journey is different and we all need support from time to time.
  3. Do not make light or humor of other peoples misfortunes.
  4. Respond (do not react) to your own mistakes with humor.
Remember, it is usually difficult to be gracious.  It takes a certain level of comfort with oneself to consistently act in this manner.  That is why it is important to support and point out the act whenever we see it.  Students realizing that being gracious is the right way to act is only the first step.  Supporting it so that we all act in that manner should be the goal.  Even as adults we find it easier to act when in numbers, imagine the impact for students. 

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