Teaching Commitment, Core Values, and a Moral Compass:

“It’s My Prerogative”

By Aristotle

My Prerogative.  1988.  Bobby Brown. 

Some notable lyrics from the song

    “I can do what I wanna do…”
    “Don’t need no permission, make my own decisions, that’s my prerogative…”

“I can do what I wanna do…”

In other words, “I’ll do what I feel like doing.

This mindset is like playing with fire.  Think about it for a moment.  Isn’t this the impetus for most of the world’s problems?  People doing what they feel like doing.

Hatred, jealousy, indignation, laziness, self-glorification, egotistical pride, fear, the desire to fit in, bitterness. The list could go on and on.  All feelings.  Feelings common to every human being.  Feelings that when fed, can lead to, well, you name it: broken relationships, fraud, theft, drug abuse, domestic violence, homicide.

What driving force can help prevent us, individually and as a society, from allowing these feelings to steer us in the wrong – and often dangerous – direction?


This here is the final post of a three-part series focused on the importance of helping our students develop an understanding of commitment  (Part 1:  Decide. Commit. Succeed.   Part 2:  Cultivating Commitment in the Classroom).

I’ll begin this post by exploring how teachers can evaluate their own core values, and in doing so, choose commitment over feelings to ultimately help persevere in what for many is a challenging time to be a teacher.  To conclude, I’ll then outline a possible way to help our students recognize the danger in following their feelings rather than commit to their own set of core values.  So let’s dive in!

In the last post on this topic, I wrote the following:

Cultivating commitment, or any core value for that matter, isn’t easy.  Great things take time.  Those core values we’re looking to grow may not even take root in our classrooms.

Let’s examine that last sentence a little more closely:  Those core values we’re looking to grow may not even take root in our classrooms.

Now, reflect back on the past school year.  Did you pour yourself into any student(s) to help them throughout the year, only to finish with little or maybe even no improvement in those areas of concern?  Maybe things like self-control, responsibility, or respect? Or perhaps your efforts to do what’s in the student’s best interest only backfired on you?  Maybe the student’s parents weren’t receptive and gave a lot of pushback, or your administration wasn’t supportive?   In these situations, it’s easy to feel like your efforts were/are in vain. That can feel frustrating, right? Not to mention exhausting and discouraging.

Or perhaps you’re a teacher frustrated with the profession in general? Teaching does have one of the highest burnout rates (If I’m Such a Great Teacher, Why Do I Want to Quit?), and as discussed before in previous blog posts, disincentives to teach are perhaps at an all-time high. Consequently, we as a nation are facing significant declines in enrollment for those pursuing the profession (Where Have All the Teachers Gone?).

Frustration. Exhaustion. Discouragement.  Many teachers are feeling this way.  And these feelings can certainly tug on us.  But this is the thing:  Commitment is not a feeling.  

Commitment is not a feeling. 

And as long we are in the classroom, we must continue to commit.  To excellence.  To professionalism.  Now, I’m not saying that a commitment to excellence means burning ourselves out or silently acquiescing to mandates and expectations that are nonsensical and counterproductive (on the contrary, a committed teacher will often speak up – prudently – to voice their concerns, despite the outcome).

What I’m saying is that we as teachers must not check out.  We must not disengage.  With such a high percentage of teacher disengagement (article here), perhaps many of us are allowing how we’re feeling (despite how valid those feelings may be) to lead us down a path of disengagement.

Commitment, however, is independent of our feelings.   

Teaching, parenting, marriage, achieving goals, or any other worthwhile pursuit in life – feeding our feelings (“I can do what I wanna do”) can often lead us astray.

Let’s now move on to our students, for they desperately need to understand this.  I believe helping students to understand that “commitment is not a feeling” is essential in equipping them to do things like:

  • better tolerate discomfort
  •  move on after a disagreement
  •  not impulsively act on every desire

These are just a few examples.

“Commitment is not a feeling” is a key takeaway from this video, referenced in the first two parts of this series on commitment.

In those first two posts, I proposed that we can strategically use motivational, short videos (*the short duration of these videos are a perk in time when things keeping getting added but nothing is taken away) in our classrooms to help cultivate social/emotional intelligence, a strong predictor of future success.  In this post, however, I want to provide an example of how we can use these videos.  Here goes:

For starters, I should mention that I’m a strong believer in repetition’s role in learning.  For example, I’d much rather teach 10 lessons in a unit, repeatedly touching upon and exploring a smaller set of concepts, than teach 20 lessons that just glance over a greater set of concepts.  Breadth versus depth.

The great Bruce Lee understood this:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

So, instead of showing my students multiple short videos on commitment, I decided to show my students the referenced video multiple times over the course of a few weeks. Each repetition being a better chance to maximize results.  Each repetition being a better chance to help students digest and remember the concepts embedded within.  Each repetition being a better chance for students to grow stronger in character, which was the ultimate goal.

This is perhaps not too different from what we do in literacy instruction (those who teach it) when we utilize shared reading/writing to look at the same (often short) text through several different lenses.  The same premise can be applied here.

With this in mind, below I’ve outlined the different lenses through which we, as a fifth-grade class, examined this short video during each viewing (*please note that I’ll refer to each viewing as a repetition)

Repetition 1:  Get Em’ Thinking

I just showed the video and as it was playing, I casually mentioned some of the key ideas I wished to revisit later.  Although casual, it is also very intentional, as it plants the seeds I wish to soon water.  

Repetition 2: “Buy-in”

“You cannot be a believer (in commitment) until you see your own life, and the misery thereof, and want to change it.”

Just as teachers revisit lines of text in literacy instruction, I simply did the same thing here.  I zoomed in on this line of the video because I wanted to help my students better understand the idea of “buy-in,” and that commitment cannot happen without it.

So, we discussed the meaning behind that line: “You cannot be a believer (in commitment) until you see your own life, and the misery thereof, and want to change it.”

I wrote that line on chart paper and had the students turn and talk about what they thought it meant.  We exchanged ideas and discussed.

We then brainstormed things in life that could use changing, as they tend to cause some misery.  Some of them included:

  • Getting in trouble (I felt like looking at inappropriate things on the computer)
  • Bad grades (I didn’t feel like studying)
  • Not being able to find things  (I didn’t feel like taking the time to organize my desk)
  • Embarrassed about poor quality of work (I felt like playing video games instead of doing my best work)
  • Having to do more work later because time wasn’t used productively (I felt like playing with rubber bands rather than try to find a way to use them to propel my vehicle and explore motion)

Yes, some of these ideas had a little teacher guidance, but again, the purpose was for students to begin to understand the concept of “buy-in.”  “Buy-in” was a term I somewhat frequently used in class this past year, so I desired for my students to connect “buy-in” with commitment, for they’re very much synonymous.

And “buy-in”, or commitment, can only happen when a person comes to truly understand the misery that comes from feeding the feelings that lead to outcomes like those listed above.

Repetition 3: “Reciprocity”

“Every area where there is not reciprocity, it will die.”

I slipped in some word attack skills, as we examined the meaning of reciprocity, but more importantly, I explicitly taught students that reciprocity is needed for the health of anything good, and without that reciprocity, those things will die.  This was the desired learning outcome.

A couple of my fifth-grade students had a loose tooth or just lost a tooth, so teeth was an example I used.  Teeth give us the ability to do a lot, I explained.  But what happens if there’s no reciprocity and you don’t take care of your teeth?  They decay and die.  An easy, concrete example for my group of students to understand.

Earth gives us a lot (Earth Day was the day in which we explored this idea of reciprocity).  What happens when there’s no reciprocity?  When we don’t give back for what we get? Death of animals. Death of recreational activities.  Death of resources.   (All concepts explored during our ecosystems unit).

Having tapped into their background knowledge using some concrete examples, I then transitioned to more abstract examples, such as relationships and goals.  We discussed how these too will die without reciprocity –  you must give to get and when you get, you give back.

Respect, gratitude, and hard work are all forms of reciprocity.

Repetition 4: Feelings vs. Commitment – The Battle

 “Commitment is not a feeling”

I believe this underlying understanding to be vital for the healthy development of students. For a healthy society. Children and adults alike are so many times governed by their feelings, not what we know to be right.

I see this every day as a teacher. Children notoriously make decisions based on feelings and not what they know is right.  This is why they typically know the right thing to say when asked and why they’re often the first to call their peers out on something they’ve done (even though they’re doing or have done the same thing themselves).  But as this great video about the Backwards Brain Bicycle emphasizes, knowledge does not equal understanding.

But knowledge does precede understanding.  So, this knowledge was a desired goal.  And this is what we do as teachers.  We help build the background knowledge needed to construct understanding.  

More specifically, I desired to build the knowledge that, yes, there is a very real battle.  A battle between feelings and a commitment to core values.  Whatever side we choose to take will often lead to either failure or success.

Here are some steps we took along the way:

  1. I had students identify feelings that interfere with them doing what they know to be right.  Anger, jealousy, fear, revenge, and laziness were some notables.
  2. I then had students, over the weekend, identify what they believe to be their core values, and submit them via a Google Form.  Values that in their core they know to be right, to be true, to be good.  I also sent out an email to their parents, encouraging a discussion as a family, if possible. Here’s a nice reply I received:

Excellent assignment! Thank you for helping us raise our daughter!  You go beyond the academics and we appreciate it.  

  1. I then activated students’ background knowledge of a compass, which was covered when we learned about technologies that fueled European exploration.  The compass of course was a great piece of technology for explorers, helping them travel in the right direction, despite stars obscured by cloudy skies.

I presented the analogy that our feelings, no matter how strong they are, often cloud the direction we should take.  Elaborating, I continued with the idea that our set of core values is our moral compass (On chart paper, I wrote down some of the core values submitted via the Google Form – see pic below).

I taught that we must learn to differentiate between our core values and our feelings (again, see pic below), and that when our feelings aren’t aligned with those core values, we are headed the wrong way!

Do we quit or persevere?  Do we shrink back or take risks? Do we get payback or forgive?  Do we lie or own up to our mistakes?  These are all rhetorical questions I presented as I emphasized that the decisions we make will depend on whether we’re living according to our feelings or a commitment to our core values.

Understanding.  In the Backwards Brain Bicycle video, even though the engineer knew what to do, it took practice, practice, and more practice (dare I say repetition) before he truly understood.

It took his son significantly less time to understand.  This underscores the importance of teachers capitalizing on the opportunity to introduce and help students begin to recognize the things discussed here at an early age.

Things like commitment and core values.

Students are going to fall.  That’s part of learning.  Part of the process of developing understanding.

Even as adults we fall.  I fall short every day.   We all do.

A commitment to core values is a fight.  A fight against those feelings that sometimes scream at you to follow them.

We as teachers have extraordinary jobs.

So, let’s commit.

Commit to supporting each other.  Commit to strengthening the profession.  And in doing so, let’s commit to cultivating a sense of commitment in our students.  Students who will go into this world of ours that’s in desperate need of people whose beliefs are firmly rooted in core values, not in  “I can do what I wanna do.”