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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Just Because": A Random Act of Unkindness

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

A friend of mine was bicycling through a quiet neighborhood one day last fall when, like a good citizen, she slowed to a halt at a stop sign. When my friend started pedaling again, a teenage girl who, flanked by a group of friends, was standing in the street near the corner as if she were going to cross, suddenly slugged my friend in the arm, knocking her off her bike and onto the ground.

As the gaggle of teens behind her broke out laughing, the girl looked impassively at my friend, who staggered to her feet, and said, unprompted, "Just because." After making a few insensitive comments, the youngsters headed away as my friend -- shaken, bruised, and bloodied by her impact on the pavement -- walked her bike along her intended route until she had recovered sufficiently to mount it and continue along her way.

The bruise on her arm where the girl had struck her remained visible for a couple of weeks. For just as long, she could barely use the arm she had landed on, and months later, it still ached at the point of impact. But the most acute -- and most chronic -- damage was to her soul. The thought that a group of adolescents could so callously inflict senseless pain and display such insensitivity toward another human being was a heavier blow to her than the physical impact.

This incident is minor on the continuum of inhumane acts, but its very banality is disturbing. It got me to thinking about some of the tenets The George Lucas Educational Foundation stands for: social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, character education. It's easy to be cynical, to decide that it doesn't matter how many classroom meetings and cooperative-learning activities and affirmations and validations children experience at school if a family -- a community, a world -- can produce a child who commits an act like that, so petty yet so reprehensible.

But we, as educators, cannot surrender; a primary function of our profession is to help children, regardless of the mitigating forces in society, attain a full measure of humanity. Edutopia.org articles such as "How To: Teach Character in the Classroom" and "'We're Here to Raise Kids': Character Development Is Key" attest to the drive we have to accomplish this formidable task. (See our Emotional Intelligence page for more features on the topic.)

What do you think about this issue? Does character education in schools have a significant effect on children's emotional growth? Is it worth the effort, considering how many contradictory stimuli, including influential accounts and footage of celebrity belligerence and other antisocial behavior, exist in the world? Is it sensible to believe that the girl who said "Just because" might have pulled her punch -- or might never have considered striking my friend in the first place -- if she'd learned better behavior in school, regardless of external influences? I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

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Trish Llaguno's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that because we have been forced to fear the all powerful standardized test scores, especially in poorer areas where many schools are not making AYP and things like music and gym are being cut out of the curriculum. I also think that we as educators have also left ourselves no time to teach kindness and empathy. I think that so many of our students are so emotionally stunted by abuse or neglect or just plain apathy on their parents part or even on teacher's part because there is so little time to worry about anything else but the TEST that they do these things just so that they can feel SOMETHING.

I know that we can weave in many additional ideas into lessons about math, but just look at those schools that are struggling... many of the teachers there are new and struggling themselves to deal with the curriculum and the discipline, and I think that working these other ideas in takes a lot of skill and practice that they do not yet possess.

I would say that MOST kids are pretty decent, and that most of them have good intentions. I do believe, however, that we as a society are slowly teaching them that they are not to blame for anything that they do, and that if they fail a grade that they will be passed on (unless they fail the "TEST" and then no matter how hard they have worked it doesn't matter).

This is a complicated issue and it will take everyone to fix it. Mothers are only allowed to take 6 weeks leave to be with their newborns, and many without full pay or any pay at all... SIX WEEKS! We need to reorganize our priorities as a country and allow our mothers to be at home with their kids and not to worry about things like health care and things of the like. Once we focus on allowing our mothers and fathers to take care of their babies we will not be required to try and do so much fixing later on.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a special education teacher of moderately disabled students, I incorporate a lot of character building communication into our daily routines. I see my students grow daily in their ability to recognize bullying and in thier ability to show empathy and concern for the well-being of others. On the other hand, during conversations with my students' parents I hear that these same caring children are different beings at home. There are reports of disrepect, oppositional behavior, arguing, overall inability for the parent to be the guiding force at home. This tells me that bullying and disrepect are learned at home.

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach at a kindergarten in South Korea. As part of our English immersion kindergarten (all classes are taught in English) one of the subjects we are required to teach is Character Education. We have to "teach" such things as honor, integrity and responsibility. Some of the concepts are hard to get across, especially in English, but I think that the children do eventually understand what they should do and hopefully it will guide them to make good choices in the future.

K Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my short experience teaching, I struggle to incorporate all of the required academic areas in to my teaching day, let alone include character ed as well. I truly understand the importantance of children receiving character ed at school since home does not seem to be teaching these important qualities, but how to fit it in? Do the "powers that be" understand how much that are asking of us? I wonder?

Caroline Rajasingh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have only been teaching for four years and so I am still shocked by how some students behave. I find I can no longer say that the majority of my students know right from wrong. They steal from each other not just the usual things like pencils but also money on a regular basis. One student had all of his pencils snapped in two and dumped in the trash. Students speak to each other in very cruel and hurtful ways. When I meet some parents I realize where students learn these behaviors. I think character education in schools is very important because for many students it is the only place where it happens. However, pressures to raise standardized test scores seem to leave no time for it. Surely building and developing a good character is every bit as important as helping kids get good grades.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have experience as a past special education teacher who taught daily character education lessons. Even now as a first grade teacher, I continue this. I agree with you that I have seen progress in my past and current students' behavior towards others. I try to point these kind acts out on a daily basis, hoping to encourage them. This works in the classroom, but I too have heard from parents that this behavior does not translate into their home life. I may not wholely agree that bullying and disrespect are therefore learned only at home. I think it can happen anywhere outside of the classroom. It is my belief that I have high expectations for behavior within my classroom that my students live up to. I think that the problem is other areas of their lives may not have these same high expectations that keep the children making good choices. It may be a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If parents see bullying behavior at home, I often wonder if they can believe in their children enough to have more positive interactions. Any thoughts anyone??

Jamie Folz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a little girl I remember watching shows that made people feel good or taught life lessons. Little House on the Prairie, this particular show comes to mind. The show was centered around family, values, and an appropriate way to live. Even in the 1980's, as a young girl, I can remember some of the important lessons I learned from watching the show.

I do not like to place blame on just one source, but I do find the media to be a negative influence on character building. Character building is not seen on most reality television shows. It is about being the best, and doing whatever it takes to win. I know some try and build people up, but many personal weaknesses are exposed and used to make ratings better. Hurt and humility is a life lesson that needs to be learned, but not processed over and over again. I feel that many Americans are becoming hardened and desensitized because we are witnesses to so many negative, hurtful, and cruel television shows.

As an educator, I make time to have "talk time" with my sixth grade students. I let them ask questions and start discussions. All of the discussions are centered on their views, thoughts, and opinions. I always preface the time by stating they are not to bash or belittle. Our focus is about resolution or learning. Many of the students love "talk time", they are given a voice and allowed to express their thoughts on current events or family situations. I feel this time is so valuable to my students. They need to be able to process and decompress, and most importantly they learn how to interact with their peers without it becoming hurtful and humiliating. Our world is very cynical and we definitely do not need any more cynics. We owe it to our students to let them have a voice and learn how to be a person of true character.

Kevin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been trying to get the powers that be in our district to adopt a character education program starting at the pre school age and continuing throughout High School. We recently had a murder of a grocer in our neighborhood that caused our school to go on lock down for several hours. I was shocked when several of my students(gang members) stated that if he would have given him the money, he wouldn't have had to shoot him. This mentality has taken over our district. Parents are not doing the job of teaching character, let alone right from wrong.

sam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that if we were to teach character education in the classroom it must be reinforced within the home as well. Too many time children learn positive and meaningful like lessons in school, only to go home and have those lessons contradicted by their parents. Who should a child listen to their parents or teachers? I believe in character education being taught, but it must be supported by parents. If it is not than there is a greater risk of it being a failure.

Stacy Perry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I whole heartedly agree that we, as educators, need to consistently teach character. There will always be contradictory influences such as media, families, and even gangs in some instances. The best way to teach our youth character is to show them what having a good character means. Modeling good character every day in the classroom, but also in the community.

Educators have an uphill battle everyday with everything that we need to teach our children. My question is this: How can we expect them to learn academically if they don't see the relevance in their lives? The same question can be asked about building character. Unfortunately, I don't think there is a wonderful answer for these questions. We just have to show our students how to act every day and pray that it will sink in.

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