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How to Teach Patriotism and Respect

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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"Ok class, I want to hear it today! Please stand for the pledge of allegiance." I look around the room as some students are facing the flag, hand over heart, reciting the words of the pledge. Others, I note, are only standing because I demanded it -- not reciting, and seemingly not caring. "Gosh Mr. Johnson, you sound like a social studies teacher!" is the response when I tell the students nearly every day that they live in the greatest nation on the earth and they should show respect and be grateful.

As I understand it, one of the main purposes of school is to educate the students about their government so they can be responsible voters. For example, objective five from the Texas Education Code, chapter four states: Educators will prepare students to be thoughtful, active citizens who have an appreciation for the basic values of our state and national heritage and who can understand and productively function in a free enterprise society.

San Antonio, being a military town, has numerous monuments and reminders of patriotic events. The sacrifice of our soldiers in behalf of our freedoms is a common theme in advertisements, billboards, and commercials. Yet, I am worried that the message is not getting across to the younger generation. How do you teach respect and patriotism?

For the most part, elementary students do what you tell them to do. More importantly, they will do what you do mimicking even your zeal and earnestness. But for some middle school students, it is like they forget all the things they did in elementary school. Ok, I'm blowing off steam here: I know it is not fair to say that just because the students fail to stand up straight, fail to recite the pledge, fail to look at the flag, and show a general lack of enthusiasm about the process doesn't necessarily mean that they do not respect the flag or the country. But if it looks like a duck... . Anyway, if the students did not recite the pledge appropriately, I frequently gave them the opportunity to do it correctly once again. They got the message of what I wanted, but did they really take it to heart?

It is Each Teacher's Duty to Teach Patriotism

Is it the system causing this problem? Routinely the pledge is part of the announcements broadcast over the intercom. Right after the pledge, according to law here in Texas, the students get a moment of silence to pray or think or reflect, then the daily announcements and inspirational thoughts. Most keep quiet, few do anything but stand there. I know I pray silently in those moments that the day will go smoothly and my learning plans will work. In some schools, the pledge is left up to the individual classroom teacher. While giving the teacher's control and responsibility of this important duty is important, pressures of the day, or lack of conviction on the part of the teacher can cause that in some classes the pledge may not be done on a regular basis if at all.

I would not maintain that the pledge of allegiance is the basis of patriotism, but I would say that it is an opportunity to show it and perhaps for some, to plant a seed. As a child I vaguely remember learning about the pledge and what each word means. I remember singing every day, "God Bless America." I remember learning the national anthem in class. Do they do that still? When do they teach about the flag and the pledge? Certainly, they do not teach it enough.

Show and Share Patriotism in Class

In this age of political unrest, where citizens and even politicians show little respect to the flag and the nation, it is easy to become cynical and bitter. We must be careful because our attitudes as teachers are picked up by students in the comments we make about our nation. Even if we really believe what we are saying, we do not have the right to inculcate a captive audience of children with our personal views. Our country and the system has its faults, but we do live in the greatest country, not because of its greatness, but because of its freedom, even the freedom to fail.

Each teacher should find ways to show their own patriotism. Find good things to say about our country and our country's heroes. With a little effort teachers can create class projects that allow students to learn patriotism from local veterans and local and national history.

Patriotism is Something to Live By

Ultimately, patriotism is not the tear in our eye when we recite the pledge, or how straight we stand, but true patriotism is demonstrated in the way we live. Perhaps, the best lesson on patriotism is from a graduation speech about the commitment to change for the better given at the University of Texas at Austin by General William McRaven. He shares ten things he learned from his experience as a navy seal that have changed his life and made the world a better place. From simply showing pride in making our bed every day to being committed to never accepting less than our best performance; these are the things that honor all those that have sacrificed their lives so we can enjoy the freedom to live and do as we please to find success and happiness in this life.

The American ideal of being the best is not just the basis of patriotism it is the basis of education. Please share in the comments section below your success in raising the level of patriotism in your classes.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thanks for pointing out a conceptual conflict. I should have added, " ... but because of its freedom, even the freedom to fail...and disagree."
From that I am not sure how you got to "blind nationalism." I am glad you were able to watch General McRaven's graduation speech about passion for improving our nation, one person at a time.
Thanks for the conversation.
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Thanks for your comment. To be crystal clear, my premise is that schools have a duty to explain what it means to be American and prepare students to be knowledgeable and to able to think analytically and critically so they can make good decisions at the poll. I agree with you, and so stated in my post, that a ceremony does not guarantee patriotism. That is why I included the speech by General McRaven. I have lived for two years in Mexico, and from that experience gained a great appreciation for my nation. For the rest of countries, I would be learning right along side of the students. That doesn't mean that I cannot be proud of my country's good points, and that doesn't mean that I have to constantly hang out the dirty laundry. Sports teams are realistic about their faults, but they have to focus on the good, be positive, and enthusiastic to win. We can do the same in America so we can improve and make it better. Just because the USA has faults, does not mean I cannot state that I believe it is the greatest country. Ultimately, the only way to be able to disagree is to live in another country, and, like you said, "understand what it is like to not live here."
Again, thanks for the post.
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


I'm not sure if you can teach patriotism because each person will absorb the concept through different pores of understanding. You certainly can show it. It's a "withitness" skill for a teacher. We breathe our freedoms without effort, without awareness, but teachers need to be aware that kids are learning this stuff for the first time. I'm sure there's curriculum for all this (Someone's gotta' make some money), but for me it's more of a natural feeling with just the basic things that we have in America. Clean drinking water out of the water fountain is a huge lesson. Where? Why? Who? Remember, I'm teaching third graders. Writing a letter to the editor (freedom of speech) is another example. Americans are living the curriculum. Teachers just need to point it out and discuss it. And the kids who are asking those deeper questions are really living "The American Dream."

The reasons why we have clean drinking water and are able to express out concerns about our world without jail time are just a couple of the reasons we should be patriotic and appreciative of our country. Like you said, Ben...America has her faults, but that doesn't mean less than greatness and Americans surely have the freedom to improve.


Dawn Burgess's picture

Thank you for your response. By "blind nationalism" I mean the "rah, rah, we're the best" attitude that many equate with patriotism. I did not mean to imply that you were blindly nationalistic, but that students might become blindly nationalistic if raised on a diet of constant praise of the country. This may not be what you do in your classroom. It certainly was not the message of General McRaven's address. But it was the impression I got from the rest of your article, which focused only on praising the country and its heroes.

Your analogy with a sports team is apt. Our country is a team, and its worth is dependent on its people and how they work together. The flag and the pledge and the national anthem are like a team's mascot and fight song; they give us something to rally around, to identify ourselves as a cohesive unit. But nationalism and "team spirit" often morph into something that disturbs me, in both sports and politics.

The best sports teams absolutely do focus on their weaknesses, because that is where the greatest improvement can be made. They note their strengths and try to use them to improve in areas where they are less strong. This is the value of sports to children; learning to work as a team, learning to improve themselves, and learning to assess their strengths and weaknesses with honesty and optimism.

The dark side of sports (and nationalism) is the "Rah, rah, beat the other team" phenomenon. "Team spirit" becomes rivalry. "We're the best" becomes a sense of superiority. A climate emerges where students identify themselves so strongly with their own team that they actually dislike or pity students from other schools. And this is also true of nationalism. It can stand in the way of cooperation among nations, of friendships across borders, of true membership in the kind of world community that I hope my children will live in. I want my students to say, "I'm an American, I love my country, and I will do what I can to make it as good as possible. We aren't as good as we can become, and we can be better by learning from other countries." It's a better approach, in my opinion, than "We're the best." I don't know that you disagree with this, but I felt your article focused more on praising the country, and less on raising it.

Ways to promote the kind of patriotism I admire? Sharing speeches like General McRaven's, which never once mentioned how great our country is. Analyzing political ads with a critical eye. Encouraging students to hold those they admire to even higher standards than those they disagree with. Encouraging students to seek out weaknesses in themselves in order to become stronger. Analyzing world events and asking, "Could this happen here?"

MakingEducation's picture

I teach some toughies in middle school self-contained classroom. I insist they stand for the pledge....I would say, "you may not have respect for the flag, but in my class you will show it, for me it is personal." However, it could still be a battle that sometimes became too big for our first moments together. I would from time to time explain that I come from a military family. I could explain that I had family members with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and another on the seas in the gulf and therefore it was important to me. That always intrigued my students and they engaged a bit more sincerely. But it was not ever something I felt was inherent. We do not live in a military town and it makes a big difference. My students did not grow up seeing the sacrifice of the military families first hand. It is foreign concept, the only way they will be engaged and sincere is if they are taught patriotism, good citizenship, and the sacrifices of fellow Americans from an early age. If the adults in their life take their freedom for granted, it is no surprise my middle schoolers do. I try and start small. Make a personal connection with my students and the stories they need to hear. Be a role model and be understanding of where they are in the lesson. It is a lesson. Thanks for posting.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This is the best advice ever to any educational problem, right here:

"I try and start small. Make a personal connection with my students and the stories they need to hear. Be a role model and be understanding of where they are in the lesson. It is a lesson."

Jenn Banks's picture
Jenn Banks
Program Manager, Communication UTS:Insearch

I really believe that school is NOT the place to teach 'patriotism'!!!! Respect yes, respect for one's country's traditions, for each other, for our social responsibilities, but NOT 'patriotism'. How too are you defining this - what constitutes 'proper patriotism'???? I agree with the comment above that your article seems to be "focused only on praising the country and its heroes", and the inference is that those heroes are military one e.g. MakingEducation's comment that for him/her " I would from time to time explain that I come from a military family. I could explain that I had family members with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and another on the seas in the gulf and therefore it was important to me." Focussing on military heroes I think is very narrow - there are MANY ways of defining "heroes' and I would think that a pledge to a flag would be better if they were included. I add a disclaimer here also - I am from Australia, and the idea of daily pledging to a flag is one that is very foreign, and I must add, a little strange as a way of showing one's patriotism.

Jennifer Banks's picture

I will preface this by saying I am not American, and do not teach in your education system - but I find it awfully disturbing that you 'teach patriotism'!! I understand teaching your students about your country's history and values (taking into account, I hope, how those have changed over time, including the greater diversity of the 21st century), so that students have an understanding and appreciation of their own country - but 'patriotism' as a discreet concept seems to me to be beyond the purview of a teaching role.

Alena Herranen's picture

When my daughter was learning the Pledge of Allegiance 4 years ago or so, it was evident she did not understand the words despite saying them every day at school. I decided to make a book with her to explain what the words mean. We published it recently on Amazon, and it may be helpful to other special needs children or elementary age children who are struggling with the words. If anyone is interested, it is called "The Pledge of Allegiance" by Alena Herranen and Seleste ter Veer.

Mike's picture

Ms Banks
When you learned about America's history you may have gotten a skewed view of our founders actions or of our militaries advancements or of our initial beginnings of fleeing the iron fist of the English.
We have not been a perfect nation, but certainly have been the most willing to help around the globe.
So many people hear only a hate motivated side of the American story and say we are trying to colonize the world.
But if you just look at our history of immigration, our history of worldwide handouts to the needy, our history of our military helping the ones oppressed by dictators from Hitter to Hussein, you will see we have been a kindhearted nation that STILL accepts those who are in need as long as they come with an honest good willed desire to start a new life.
Our nation was blessed with this wonderful land from sea to shining sea by a benevolent creator who shines on those who honor Him and His laws, spelled out in the bible.
No we are not perfect, but we are good and among the best people in the world.
We are great because we are good. When we cease to be good, we will cease to be great.
I might add that every action of the government is not necessarily the desire of the people, but we still have the best form of democracy on the planet. Still though, there are millions and millions of people that reside in our country who will ALWAYS be good God-fearing citizens as a remnant who serve the creator and pray for the rest of the nation who simply live here for the benefits of this great blessed nation.

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