Megan Saxelby teaches at Hawken School in Cleveland, OH. She thinks kids are rad, learning alongside them is a joy, and specializes in social emotional learning.
Below she discusses how dignity can transform the classroom, our community, and our relationships with young people around conflict, creativity, culture, and identity.
Bring Dignity Into Your School And Transform Culture
By Megan Saxelby
It still astounds me that I am a teacher. I hated school. I graduated high school with a 2.45 GPA. I would frequently call the front office from the bathroom pretending to be my Mom so I could leave. At 15, I went out of my way to learn things about the woman who worked the front desk, Kathy, so I could sound convincing when I called to say that Megan would be leaving early for an orthodontist appointment, or doctor’s appointment, or family event. I have multiple learning differences and school quickly became a place where I felt stupid and scared. Early on I made the decision that it was way better to be the class clown, the smart ass, or absent then it was to lean in to the vulnerability required to succeed in a place where I did not feel safe. Yet, here I am, in my 12th year teaching. Everyday, I feel a sense of urgency when it comes to understanding and prioritizing the emotional lives of young people because I carry my adolescence everywhere I go.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg’s excellent book on adolescent neuroscience, Age of Opportunity, offers insights about why I feel like I carry adolescent Megan around like a backpack full of swear words and side eye. It’s called the reminiscence bump. Research has shown that, “ events between the ages of ten and twenty-five are recalled more frequently than events from other periods” (19). There are a few theories out there as to why, but I agree with Steinberg’s hypothesis that, “ brain regions responsible for strong emotions are especially sensitive during adolescence. As a result, the adolescent brain is chemically primed to encode memories more deeply. The bump doesn’t exist because more emotional events take place in adolescence, but because ordinary events trigger stronger emotions” (21).
I know it is not just me. All of us carry memories from adolescence, and many seem to have nearly the same emotional charge they did when we were teens. And yet, many people agree to a dismissive cultural narrative that adolescence is just bad for everyone, something all young people have to suffer through until you “grow out of it”. How does our current idea of adolescence empower young people or validate their emotional realities? Steinberg offers a similar viewpoint when he shares:
“… most of our efforts to influence adolescent development are aimed at preventing or treating problems, rather than optimizing healthy development. Unlike zero to three, where our focus has been largely on encouraging positive growth and development through early interventions and education, our emphasis during adolescence has been almost entirely on preventing problems. We spend our time telling adolescents what they shouldn’t do, rather than guiding them toward what they should– and can– do” (205).
We have to put on a different set of lenses to view our students; lenses made of proactive strategies, critical empathy, and an intellectual framework to understand the power of human behavior. Understanding dignity has transformed my teaching, made my classrooms healthier, and brought more people on board to share my sense of urgency around the emotional lives of teens.
Dignity is a framework that forces a shift in our understanding of human behavior and relationships. A framework which radically shifts our interactions and our cultures. Frequently we think dignity and respect are the same thing, but they are fundamentally different. Dr. Donna Hicks, author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, articulates the difference:
“Dignity is different from respect. Dignity is a birthright. We have little trouble seeing this when a child is born; there is no question about children’s value and worth. If only we could hold onto this truth about human beings as they grow into adults, if only we could continue to feel their value, then it would be so much easier to treat them well and keep them safe from harm. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline for our interactions. We must treat others as if they matter, as if they are worthy of care and attention…Others’ bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return. Their inherent value and worth needs to be honored no matter what they do. But we don’t have to respect them. They have to earn respect through their behavior and actions” (4-5).
The primary shift here is using dignity as the baseline for our interactions and the seemingly simple ask to treat others as if they matter.
Dignity will increase your community’s emotional intelligence.
Our emotions are not going away, they don’t just hang out and wait at home when we walk into our schools, they walk in with us. Sometimes they are hypervigilant and ready to rumble, sometimes they’re happy and calm, sometimes they’re a mix of both, sometimes they are straight up asleep. Schools need to be emotionally aware and agile because everything happening during the day is so uniquely human. Within any school on any given day here is what I find: People trying things, people avoiding things, people being scared of things, people being mad about things, people learning things, people managing relationships, people making things, people being REALLY vulnerable with varying degrees of success. In order for all this humanness to happen, and, dare I say flourish, we have to prioritize the emotional well being of all community members. If we (and I mean ALL- teachers-admin-parents-students) agree to try using dignity as our way of seeing ourselves and others, the emotional lives of others are always at the forefront. Dr. Hicks reinforces this need:
“What seems to be of the utmost importance to humans is how we feel about who we are. We long to look good in the eyes of others, to feel good about ourselves, to be worthy of others’ care and attention. We share a longing for dignity– the feeling of inherent value and worth… when a mutual sense of worth is recognized and honored in our relationships, we are connected. A mutual sense of worth also provides the safety necessary for both parties to extend themselves, making continued growth and development possible… We have an inborn desire to be treated well because we are psychologically programmed to believe that our lives are dependent on it. We cannot help but react to being mistreated… Research suggests that we are just as programmed to sense a threat to our dignity– to our sense of worth– as we are to a physical threat” (7).
If members do not feel they can bring their full selves into our space they will close off and disengage, especially our young people. Academic engagement, professional engagement, parent partnership, are all linked to perceived emotional safety. Dignity gives us a framework to think about ourselves and others, motivation to reflect, and a constant reminder that other people matter, an idea that should be the baseline we bring to all of our interactions.
Dignity empowers communities by depersonalizing conflict
I really wish that someone had coached me on healthy ways to engage in conflict when I was younger. I imagine many people feel the same. Conflict is not fun, but does not have to feel horrific. Conflict is an essential element of a healthy community, but when we do not have skills to manage the myriad of emotions conflict brings up in ourselves or others, it is easy to want to hide from it. It feels easier to not mention that a situation made you feel uncomfortable, to not tell a teacher a comment they made in class hurt your feelings, to not tell a friend they crossed an important boundary, to deny that something has you feeling vulnerable. However, that desire to avoid creates toxicity that make our communities sick. We avoid conflict because we fear that our emotions will get the better of us, which is valid.
In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the experience of being captured by your default reactions as being “emotionally hijacked.” We have all been there, when our emotions take over and it seems like we cannot stop ourselves from engaging in messy behavior, even though we don’t want to. Dignity provides a framework to better handle conflict in the moment, but also gives us a road map back if we do get hijacked and cross a line, a necessary tool. Understanding dignity allows us to name behavior and address actions that can be changed rather than attacking the character of the person in front of us. Having a shared vocabulary depersonalizes conflict and empowers communities.
Dignity increases creativity and innovation
Schools need to be full of collaboration, creative problem solving, critical thinking, and innovation. However, when we don’t invest in the people in our community, equipping members with tools to manage emotions and engage in healthy conflict, we are limiting our collective potential. Understanding the role emotion plays in your daily life, and having a framework to process interactions, empowers everyone to excel and creates space for innovation. Famous design thinking organization IDEO asserts the three pillars of design thinking are empathy, ideation, and experimentation. To engage in those three pillars, we have to create communities with emotional resilience that embrace productive discomfort.
We also, according to creativity researcher Jodi Ricci, have to re-examine what we mean when toss around the word empathy. The common understanding of empathy is to participate in someone else’s experiences or feelings by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation. We tend to assume the positive when it comes to empathy, right? Everyone should have it and we should all work towards it, that is the message that we give to our students. However, Dr. Hicks explores the connection between critical thinking and empathy when describing the role that mirror neurons play in empathetic thinking, “these neurons help us read the emotional experience of others. When someone else is feeling sad, these neurons automatically stimulate the same neurons in us, making us feel sad, too. It is a wonderful gift when these neurons enable us to feel compassion, to connect with others in primal empathy. But the neurons also have the power to incite in ourselves the anger, hatred, and negativity that someone else is feeling” (99).
Using dignity as a frame for our interactions helps others understand that empathy is not a passive act. It is actively choosing to engage in critical thinking and forming habits that encourage us to think beyond our feelings to embrace the complexity involved in interacting and creating as a community.
Want to change your school culture tomorrow?
Google the 10 Elements of Dignity and start talking about them in your faculty meetings, parent partnership events, and with students. Order Donna’s book and read it with your school community. Go to Cultures of Dignity and look at their work and their excellent curriculum, Owning Up. Every day I wonder who my students will become, how they are feeling, what happened to them that day, and if they felt that they mattered. I think about my fellow teachers and wonder if they felt recognized and valued for the work they put in. I think a lot about my people and how we can change the world. We must disrupt the way we think about schools. We must break the old model that is built on ridiculously narrow routes to success that are based on a fictional, romanticised idea that does not build up their humanity and emotional acumen.
A freshman, Leo, recently wrote a paper on why he thinks the dignity model should be used in schools, “School feels painful for so many students because they do not feel valued. Currently, many students feel as if their teachers are always criticizing them, or only care about them being smart or easy to teach. Young people are uniquely aware of hypocrisy in relationships, and if teachers do not treat students as if they matter, as if their emotions are valid, then students are less likely to engage in school.” Students, parents, teachers, administrators… everyone is less likely to engage if we do not feel like we matter. Make people feel like they matter. Build cultures of dignity.
For more information and some awesome resources check out:
- Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict and Leading with Dignity by Donna Hicks Ph.D
- Jodi Ricci and The SEED Framework for Cultivating Creativity
- Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg
- The End of Average and Dark Horse by Todd Rose
- The Laboratory for the Science of the Individual
- I have some work on my site: megansaxelby.com
- Mike Wilper’s work, an educator highlighted in Leading with Dignity
If you have any questions for Megan, email firstname.lastname@example.org