One of my favorite frameworks to tackle a tricky topic is Dr. Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. I first wrote about it here. In my classroom days, students totally latched onto Kohlberg’s ideas.
Kohlberg proposed six levels as a way to rank one’s motivation behind an action. This is what I love about it. It’s not so much about the action, but the motivation – after all, you might take a positive action, but for a wide range of reasons. The reasons are what defines moral development under Kohlberg’s framework.
Our Own Limits
After sharing Kohlberg’s framework dozens of times with teachers, I’ve noted a pattern:
As an adult, you can only help kids reach the level of moral development you have reached yourself.
You can read more about the definition of each level here, but I want to focus on Level Three: “Interpersonal accord and conformity. Social norms. The good boy/girl attitude.”
Level Three is all about compliance. It’s the people pleaser level. And it was where I topped out for a long time. Perhaps you’ve struggled with this as well.
Level Three Was Me
As a kid, I learned to go along. I was rewarded when I made things easy for adults. I was a peace-maker. My default position was compliance.
Then, as a teacher, when confronted with students who were young activists, wanting to tackle school problems and stand up to bad rules, I got very nervous. “Oh don’t worry about it,” I’d murmur, wishing they’d just go along – but also knowing that I was wrong to wish that.
Being at Level Three made me compromise my own beliefs. I followed along with district policies that were, quite obviously, harmful for my students. These compromises kept me up at night. I knew I was going along rather than doing what was right.
Compliance was comfortable in the short term, but extremely uncomfortable in the long term.
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Byrdseed and Growth
When I started writing at Byrdseed, there was pushback from some folks at my district. This was when I started moving up a level or two. I knew that sharing my experiences in the classroom was important. I decided I wasn’t going to stop writing and speaking because it made some people uncomfortable.
So I wrote. I traveled. Eventually I quit my secure job as as teacher. I started to take more social and professional risks. I started putting on my own events. And, what amazed me, is that it started to become a bit… addicting. I now feel the need to take on newer and bigger risks.
I’m very glad I didn’t stay compliant.
Taking A (Small) Stand
So if, like me, you find yourself at Level Three, doing what’s wrong to temporarily please those around (and above) you, take a conscious step to do what’s right, but scary. Do one thing. It can be small. You’ll survive. Then do it again. You’ll get better. Seth Godin calls it “making a ruckus.” It may even become a little fun. Shedding the need to please everyone is pretty darn freeing.
This doesn’t mean we become jerks. You can speak up firmly but respectfully. But it does mean standing up for those who can’t. It means, for those of us with privilege (whether its tenure, popularity with parents or admin, membership in a union, etc), to use it to protect those without. It means protecting students, but also their families, and even fellow teachers who are at risk.
It means an occasional act of audacity.
As Elie Wiesel said while accepting the Nobel Prize:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Raising Kids’ Moral Development
Supporting our students’ moral development is imperative. Gifted kids are uniquely suited for this climb – even at young ages. It’s well-established that the gifted develop a sense of morality earlier and more deeply than their peers. But we, their teachers, can’t support those higher levels if we’re limited by our own need to conform. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up for what we know is right.