Schools can shape people of integrity

2009-03-12 00:00

In society today — both in South Africa and beyond — what we need more than anything is people of integrity. The vision of an upright society can be achieved only if it is owned by all stakeholders.

Teachers are in a privileged position because tomorrow’s leaders are currently in our schools. We have the responsibility to mould and influence them, and through them, their families and friends, the work places they will enter one day and, thus, society and our country as a whole.

Teaching integrity involves the entire school family, and not just the pupils and teachers. Parental support is vital as children learn by imitating their example. For example, a father who exceeds the speed limit and a mother who talks on her cellphone when driving model behaviour contrary to the rules of the road.

The Wykeham Collegiate has adopted the teaching of integrity as a new vision that stems from a “holy discontent” about many things in society, including schools. Not least are the distressing levels of corruption in public life, and problems in schools like stealing, lying and failing to accept responsibility for personal actions. Of concern, too, is the continual selfish focus on “me”, “my rights” and “what I want”. Instead, we want to create a culture in which integrity, honesty and consideration for others are paramount. We believe that we can make a difference if we consciously teach integrity.

Integrity is moral soundness and uprightness, honesty, wholeness and freedom from corrupting influences or practices. Integrity is about who we are and want to be, rather than what we want. It’s about wanting to be a principled person, rather than wanting to appear smart or successful. Integrity is playing for a unique audience — for ourselves and God — rather than playing for an audience of many.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More urges Richard Rich to become a fine teacher rather than trying to bribe his way into political office. Rich asks who would know that he was a fine teacher, so More replies: “You, your pupils, your friends, God … not a bad public, that!”

• Integrity is about character; it is a heart matter.

• Integrity is honesty in the detail — being honest in little things leads to honesty in important matters.

• Integrity is walking the talk and being an example to others, as our actions speak louder than our words.

• Integrity is not about just knowing the rules of life but about playing by them. It is about doing the right thing, even when no one else is watching.

• Integrity is having the courage to stand for the truth even if you have to stand alone. Maintaining integrity can be costly.

• People of integrity are dependable and can be trusted.

We have many examples of people of integrity. First and foremost we can follow the example of Jesus Christ and subscribe to his golden rule: love your neighbour as yourself. In his life we see exceptional courage and strength allied to extraordinary humility and compassion. Some of Christ’s qualities are reflected in other great leaders, such as our own Nelson Mandela who was recently quoted in The Witness: “As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself … great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, of humility.”

I urge all schools to subscribe to this ideal and teach young people the value of uprightness and integrity. Together we can take a stand against greed, selfish ambition and corruption. Together, parents, teachers and pupils can endeavour to model integrity to each other through our actions and example. Together we can make a difference to our beloved country and make it a better place for all.

• Judith Brown is the Lady Principal of The Wykeham Collegiate in Clarendon. This is an edited version of a presentation given at a recent regional meeting of the Heads of Independent Schools of Southern Africa (SAHISA). The heads welcomed the initiative and agreed to champion the teaching of integrity in their own schools.

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