When I was growing up, I heard adults say: “Do as I say, not as I do.” After spending the last decade as a public school superintendent, it didn’t take me long to realize that the kids of this millennium don’t have much use for that approach. Instead, they prefer role models whom they can emulate in every way, every day — folks who “walk the talk” and live their own message.
Students today want teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers who treat them with respect and dignity and who encourage everyone to do the right thing. Whether or not they express it in so many words, the many youngsters with whom I have worked have demonstrated a real desire for role models both inside and outside the classroom.
Not long after becoming a high-profile school administrator in Colorado in 2002, I learned that hundreds of impressionable youngsters were watching my every move in public—there was no place to hide. It reminded me of TV newsman Dan Rather’s phrase, “the camera never blinks.” For instance, in an express line at the store, I would invariably be startled when my students would pop up out of nowhere to count the number of items in my cart. After a while, I knew better than to even think about such things as parking temporarily in a handicapped spot or using a radar detector on the highway. I knew what the kids would say: “Now, what were you saying about following the rules, Mr. Hyatt?” or “Were you hoping you wouldn’t get caught, Mr. Hyatt?” Yes, I had discovered accountability both on and off the job was my new constant companion–so I’d better get used to it and plan accordingly.
Unfortunately, this spring we don’t have to look very far for fresh examples of hypocrisy and lack of character in the news. In 1992, the legendary retailer Sam Walton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom just weeks before his death. So one can only imagine how the former Eagle Scout would react today to the revelations that his Wal-Mart chain had apparently bribed local officials to open and operate stores in Mexico. Similarly, as a taxpayer, I also was appalled by the story of the General Services Administration’s ridiculously lavish spending at conferences in Las Vegas and elsewhere, captured in part on regrettable and inappropriate videos of drinking and partying — all on your and my dime!
Of course, even GSA was outdone by the unprofessional excesses of the U.S. Secret Service and other members of the White House’s advance team for a recent conference in South America. Indeed, it sounds like the organizational culture of the Secret Service is in need of a huge tune-up, or better yet, a complete transformation.
Some have argued that if it’s legal to hire prostitutes in Colombia, or common practice to pay bribes in Mexico, then why not? We can’t impose our values on other cultures, especially if it might put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage, or so the reasoning goes. Well, just because something may be technically “legal” doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Inside, it is our sense of character that reminds us of that inescapable fact. At the Secret Service, many who were involved in the scandal already have lost their jobs, and well they should. As representatives of the U.S. conducting official business on foreign soil, they deserved huge consequences.
Regarding the bribery issue, if I were in a class with sixth graders right now, I’d ask them this: If bribery is okay for our citizens to do in other cultures, then where do we draw the line? And how can we tell people from those same foreign countries that we don’t accept bribes here? Such discussions are essential for our children to have. So we really should embrace these “teachable moments,” as they say. In my experience, ethical dialogue leads to ethical self-inquiry and then ethical action.
Many years ago, I served as mentor to three inner-city boys (ages 8-10) in Washington, DC. I remember asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. They all wanted to be professional basketball players. Well, I told them, only a fraction of a fraction of youngsters would ever have that incredible opportunity. “So, what else would you like to be?” To my astonishment, they all said that they would want to be janitors! Why? Because “Mr. Jones,” their school janitor, always greeted them in the morning and talked with them about life in general. As a result, they respected him and wanted to emulate him. (Well done, Mr. Jones!)
There’s a valuable lesson in this, I think. In schools, on playing fields, at home with family, wherever kids go—they need role models whom they know care about them and who want them to succeed. And these adults need to live the values that they hope to see in these children. Character can’t be taught in a vacuum. It really does take a village.
Parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, all of us can learn a thing or two from Mr. Jones. The best way to develop character and caring in the young is to demonstrate it to them in everything we do.