Inspiring Integrity: The Life We Live Is the Lesson We Teach

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Inspiring Integrity: The Life We Live Is the Lesson We TeachIf you look up the word integrity in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition that has to do with having strong morals, adhering to ethical principles, and being honest. The definition we use with our learners at my school is being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. That being said, it’s vital that school members know what their values are so they can base their choices on how “right” is defined. Integrity is a big word with even bigger implications, not only for our future leaders, but for people of all ages. The life we live, after all, is the lesson we teach.

Embrace It
In order for us to abide by a set of ethical principles, we have to name those values. Who decided on your school’s core values? Have they been mutually agreed upon? And how do you use them to intentionally build the moral uprightness that gives integrity wings?

Our school district’s core values date back to 1987, when a group of 120 community stakeholders met to decide which traits they wanted our alumni to possess in order to be “value-able” citizens in their post-secondary work, in their careers, and ultimately, in their lives. At that time, they compiled a list of fourteen traits to propose to local school board members. Shortly after, teachers in our district started to intentionally weave these core values into daily habits, routines, and lesson plans so that those values became part of the very fabric of our schools.

In November 2001, our board revitalized and consolidated the fourteen traits and adopted the Character Counts! Six Pillars of Character. These six character traits have become common language as we walk alongside one another and grow with our students day in and day out.

So how do we integrate the virtues so that integrity becomes second nature?

Model It
The three most important ways to integrate integrity into students’ lives are to model it, and model it, and then model it some more.

This quick adaptation of the age-old Simon Says game will quickly illustrate the power of modeling. Ask your students (or staff) to make an A-OK sign. Then, as you are putting it up to your cheek, say to them, “Now put it on your chin, like this.” Ask them to freeze and reflect on where their A-OK sign is and why. The majority likely will have followed your example and put it on their cheek despite the fact that you instructed them to put it on their chin. They copied what you modeled.

If we don’t model integrity by adhering to our core values, how can we expect our children to do that for themselves?

We can start by asking ourselves tough questions about timeless nonnegotiables:

  • Do we take responsibility, show up on time, and work hard?
  • Do we help people who may never be able to repay us?
  • Do we show empathy, compassion, and kindness?
  • Do we treat others like we want to be treated?
  • Do we tell the truth and keep our promises?
  • Do we take turns, play fairly, and share?
  • Do we know and obey the rules?
  • Do we recycle to conserve our resources?
  • Do we resolve conflicts peacefully?
  • Do we respect one another and celebrate differences?
  • Do we apologize and forgive?
  • Do we volunteer and serve others with a smile?

Though the actions on this lofty list might seem impossible to live up to, integrity isn’t about being perfect. It’s about best effort. It’s about growth. It’s about being a better version of ourselves tomorrow than we were today. And it’s about doing what we need to do when we stray from the Character Road. We need to model how to mess up, take responsibility, feel remorse, apologize, and make things right. We must show contrition and make restitution by showing our children that when you mess up, you’ve got to clean it up.

When students realize, embrace, and truly believe that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world as they know it, it will plant them in an environment where undesired behaviors like lying and stealing won’t need to take root and grow. When we value process over product so that students feel less pressure to cheat to get ahead or to make the grade, we’ll cultivate an ideal culture in which integrity interactions can thrive.

Teach It
In addition to modeling it, we must intentionally teach that integrity is important in everything we do. Everywhere. All the time. Even when nobody is watching. It’s a necessary ingredient in healthy relationships. Without integrity, there is no trust. Without integrity, there aren’t healthy connections. Without integrity, there just isn’t a solid foundation upon which to build our friendships.

When we make integrity an integral part of our lives, we simply feel better about how we interact with one another. Teach it by encouraging students to research stories in the news and to look for examples in their everyday lives of people who are (and who are not) showing integrity. Reflect on these examples and inquire about how your students might act in a similar situation.

Read fictional stories that highlight the theme of integrity, like The Empty Pot by Demi. In this tiny treasure, an aging emperor gives each child in the village a seed and a challenge: Whoever can grow the best flowers will be named successor to his throne. Despite his best efforts, Young Ping, who typically has a green thumb, cannot get his seed to grow. What no one knows is that the seeds have been cooked so they won’t grow. When all of the children except for Ping show up with big beautiful bouquets of flowers that they’ve supposedly grown, it’s clear that Ping is the only child worthy of being named the next emperor. Referring back to our definition of integrity—being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing—ask students how Ping showed integrity.

Live It
Finally, let students know that it’s cool to be a kid with character. Encourage them to live life with integrity even when it seems to take more than they want to give. Incentivize strong character choices with positive consequences, both tangible and intangible, until those extrinsic rewards become intrinsic feelings of satisfaction and joy so that students do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. That’s when they’ll know that they have arrived at a mile marker on Character Road. Integrity is every bit as important to students as it is to you as their mentor—and to the healthy connections and choices that you strive to foster among the members and stakeholders of your school family.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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One Response to Inspiring Integrity: The Life We Live Is the Lesson We Teach

  1. Virginia Macias says:

    I love what I read & I find it to be very insperational

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