On Dignity, and the “Soft Skills” We Must Foster in our Students

By Dr. Michael Shapiro
Principal, Highland Academy Charter School, Anchorage

To the public, standardized test scores are the measure by which schools and students are evaluated. They are comprised of hard data, and student achievement is, after all, a primary goal for all of us in education. However, students, and indeed schools, should be measured in other ways, as well.

Much has been written regarding the intangible elements of a comprehensive education. Jaime Greene’s article for the Association for Middle Level Education entitled, “Soft Skills: Preparing Kids for Life After School” highlights this concept of intangibles or soft skills, the unquantifiable attributes that standardized tests don’t measure. These elements of student growth and development are as important as content knowledge. Whether it’s perseverance, social-emotional intelligence, metacognition, or executive functioning, as educators we recognize that these abilities indicate potential and success as much if not more so than innate intelligence. This same theory underlies Carol Dweck’s research on “mindset.”

Here at Highland Academy Charter School in Anchorage we firmly subscribe to this idea of educating the whole child, and that qualitative measures of student growth are as important as quantitative. For much of our 15 year existence we’ve had in place a set of standards called Personal Social Service (PSS), and Career and College Preparedness (CCP), many of which fall into these same categories. An example of one of these standards is “Practice consistent accountability in work ethic/study skills.” Another is “Analyze conflict resolution skills used in personal life.” These are sometimes difficult to quantify but are observable and possible to evaluate empirically. At Highland, we believe they are among a set of essential attributes necessary to promote the growth of young adults who are ready for college, the work force, and at the most basic level, adulthood.

These PSS and CCP standards are a way of identifying the kind of people we want our students to be when they leave us. We want them to have a well-rounded academic experience, but we also want them to be thoughtful, decent, and inquisitive people. The word “dignity” sums it up. We expect our students to be dignified and to value dignity in others.

How do you teach dignity? How do you teach students to recognize and appreciate the dignity of others? It’s more than social-emotional awareness. It’s different from empathy. It pertains to respect, pride, perhaps even honor, and like those other immeasurable qualities, it’s as important as knowledge. The most straightforward way to teach it is to model it. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to model all of the qualities we prize in our students: life-long learning, empathy, curiosity, etc. Certainly, dignity is no different. But how do we do it?

  • Model. Model. If dignity is a product of respect and honor, then we model respect and we act honorably in all dealings with children. Students will not respect a teacher who does not respect them.
  • We never take a student’s dignity from him. Kids, particularly young adolescents, can be frustrating to the point of hair loss. There’s no point in denying it. However, when we lose our cool, when we show that frustration, it often manifests itself in taking a student’s dignity from him, either by calling out his behavior or worse, publicly humiliating him. Discipline and correction ought to happen privately.
  • Highlight examples outside of the classroom. It can often be challenging to find positive examples in the current political and media climate, but when we see them, we ought to highlight them.

We don’t talk about dignity very often, in or out of school. We ought to. We need to re-emphasize its importance in our society. Highland Academy’s Personal Social Service standards are the cornerstone of our attempt to teach, model, and instill dignity in our students. It is our fervent hope for them that those lessons will become ingrained and that they will become the foundation for a group of young adults with the soft skills necessary to succeed beyond school.

We are a small school, and the quantity of our graduates will never be the standard by which we measure ourselves. The quality of our graduates, however, is something we’re ready to match against any school in the state, perhaps the country. The foundation of soft skills they’ve needed to acquire in order to graduate from Highland Academy make it so.

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