Thursday, October 13, 2011

Integrity Brain Dump

I've been reflecting extensively about integrity, because this year I am really trying to do a better job with the character education program I am teaching as part of the Grade 8 homeroom. Already I've talked to the homeroom kids about: appreciation as a tool to smoothing over difficult confrontations; manners and cultures; why we come to school (and why that's a privilege); the idea that our intelligence is not fixed, and that our knowledge can improve our brain's processes and in effect we can "get smarter" over time; setting goals and brainstorming study skills. I have found that by opening my own life experiences up to the kids, I am making the textbook lessons more meaningful for me (and thereby, hopefully for them as well). Every week, I try to tie the lesson to something a little bit deeper, and the kids have reciprocated by opening up with their own thoughts and experiences as well, allowing me a sneak peek at their thoughtful and insightful side, which I don't always see in the context of a math class.

Something that has been on my mind (although not necessarily in the Grade 8 character-development curriculum) has been the issue of integrity. The more I think about it, the more integrity seems to weave itself into everything that we do, which means both that it's necessary for me to talk about integrity issues with the kids, and also that it is very difficult to get a clear, convincing, effective message across in a single discussion. I am going to do a brain dump over here; feel free to add your own thoughts.


When we think about integrity, we mostly think of not lying and not cheating. In school, we only talk about integrity as a reactionary mechanism -- usually after something bad has already occurred, such as group cheating or plagiarism. What we need to do is to actively address integrity issues as a school as a prevention mechanism -- and that can be done in our individual curricula (ie. history and English, where morality is explored in the context of literature), or in our character-education classes.

The first stumbling block I have is how to talk to kids in a convincing way about the importance of integrity. Why should they bother not doing certain things, if they know that they cannot or probably will not be caught?? I think we are dissuaded from negative behavior for any number of these reasons below (depending on our own morality developmental stage):

* Being worried about consequences (ie. punishment) that may occur to us personally
* Upholding our reputation (another form of personal consequence)
* Being afraid to hurt or damage others who trust us
* Believing that our individual needs should come after our commitment or obligation to a group/policy/community (Relativistic morals?)
* Believing that the action is wrong on an absolute scale

As you probably agree, our aim to talk to kids about integrity is roughly equivalent to moving them along the spectrum of reasons towards the intrinsic motivators rather than the extrinsic motivators. But, doing so is difficult. The best that I can come up with is talking to kids about my own view of my own personal integrity, in order to shed light on what it means to me, personally. (I grew up in a family that raised us on stories that carried inherent values, but I'm not sure if my kids have the same relationship with their parents.)

So, here are some examples I've come up with for where I think I exhibit a personal integrity, in a way that is perhaps subtler than not cheating and not lying:

My integrity is reflected in the way I work at my jobs. When I was 17, I had my first job evaluation by my Starbucks store manager. I was nervous, and I had asked my friend if he was nervous as well. This is what he said: "I always do my best on a job, whether or not someone is watching me. And in the end, that's all I can do. There is no reason to worry." I still carry that work ethic with me today. I don't ever compare myself with other teachers in my department; I need to do my best within my own frame of possibilities. Over time, that frame will expand. So, it doesn't matter if someone is years more experienced than me or if they choose to leave at 3pm; what matters to me is that I do my very best every single day for every kid in my class, within my own realm of possibilities. Furthermore, I don't ever worry about whether I've earned my place at work, because I've never lied or cheated on any test, project, resume, or interview to get there.

My personal integrity also means to me that if there is a legitimate way to get something done, that's what I'll do even if that means my life will probably be made a bit harder. I remembered today an incident where I went to a supervisor asking for a day off after months of not taking a single day off -- there had been days when I was so sick that I could not stand up, and still I had shown up to work. The supervisor told me no, that I couldn't have this day off to go to my friend's wedding, even though I was requesting it far in advance. I was really upset, but even then I refused to call in sick that day. My personal integrity means that I need to represent what is true, even if that truth would inconvenience me.

When we put ourselves in the shoes of a hiring manager, it's clear why integrity is important. Whom would you rather hire -- a conniving employee who might lie about their results, or an employee who would own up to their mistakes and reflect upon them with others? For the same reasons, we prefer our politicians to have integrity, because so much goes on behind closed doors in politics that we have to be able to trust them (at least a little). When the situation is gray legally but not ethically so, we can only hope collectively that those in charge (such as the bankers giving out mortagages) are doing their part to ensure that the interest of the larger community is protected. Integrity, therefore, is clearly something that we value as a community.

When does a kid encounter integrity issues? All the time, I bet. Inside and outside of school, I bet. Imagine a kid whose parents want him to go home early, while the temptation is to hang out late with his friends. He can either: 1. stay out and then make up an excuse afterwards, 2. go home and then sneak out, 3. try to reason with his parents to get a later curfew, but going home at the promised time, even if it's early. Which is the least pleasant but the most honest option for a kid? Probably #3. In situations big and small, whether or not they even give it a second thought, they are constantly being confronted with choices and reinforcing their own integrity, or the lack thereof.

So far, these are all just my thoughts. I am giving an anonymous survey next week in my homeroom and I'll be tallying the opinions to get a feel for what kids consider to be cheating behavior, whether that definition is tied to the outcome (ie. if they successfully cheated or not), and what they think are the most important factors that discourage them from certain types of behavior. From those surveyed results I'll plan some discussion points and go about it, leaving much of it open-ended to hear what the kids have to say about the issue.

The point is that I want to open the door for more proactive conversation about integrity and less reactive conversation. Thoughts? Ideas??

Addendum 10/14/2011: In case you are interested, here is the survey I am going to pass out.


  1. I'm not sure if this is any different from what you've already said, because I agree that integrity is hard to define, but I'm wondering if there's another piece about the alignment between your beliefs/values and your actions-- and the importance of being aware of the choices you're making as a result, rather than just doing something because it vaguely "feels right" or "feels wrong."

    I think of this particularly as it relates to big life choices, in terms of professions and organizations with which to align oneself, and wonder what this means for an adolescent who is still finding him/herself (heck, that's probably true for many adults who are already on career tracks); maybe something about the friends/people with whom they surround themselves, the activities they choose to pursue, etc., and the extent to which those decisions are reflective of who they are and what they value (to the extent that they're aware).


  2. That's a good one, but a tough one maybe for the kids to relate to? The clearest stories I've come across that illustrate that principle of "big life choices" come out of the book "What Should I Do With My Life", which I read back in college. I'll try and incorporate that somehow.

    Thanks for the tip!

  3. I think a good way to get some discussion is to ask them questions. Asking the group for reasoning behind their answers on your survey might coax out some real discussion. Maybe you could pinpoint a few items that the class disagreed on, or have small groups compare their reason-ratings with eachother. You could also try scenarios like the Heinz Dilemma on them for follow-up.

  4. Here is one of the small posters I put in my classroom this year.

  5. @samjshah had a great post on academic integrity: