An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Assistant Head of School/Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed parents and guardians at the Upper School Back-to-School Night and shared her advice to students from the first week of school. Read an excerpt from her remarks. 

In my opening comments to your students two weeks ago, I talked to them about our unique opportunity this fall to recalibrate. Each start of the school year presents this great opportunity to reset — but after a year and a half of something very different from what we were used to, this year feels like a particularly ripe opportunity to readjusting ourselves, our practices and habits. I encouraged students to be intentional about taking full advantage of the opportunity to refocus themselves on their values, bringing together more closely who they are and who they want to be.

Julie Lutton, our wellness and personal development department head has a saying that I like, “authenticity is who we are and integrity is who we want to be.” Tonight, I want to share what I said to students about integrity as well as a few reflections on what we can do as parents, guardians, and educators to help our students develop a mature sense of self and the courage to stand for what they know is right.

Integrity is connected to our ethical mindset but it’s distinct within itself as a concept and as a value. The word integrity is defined as a quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, in other words moral uprightness. There’s a second meaning that is about the state of being whole and undivided. One psychologist described integrity as “a psychological process, an integration of your outer life and inner life — two sides coming together, creating a whole, consistent you.”

This notion of inner and outer alignment is lifelong work worthy of taking up.

I started my own journey of building a strong connection between my values and my actions as a child, as most of us do. The first experience I can recall happened when I was in 3rd grade.

I shared an embarrassing experience I had where my integrity was tested with our students in an effort to have them reflect on their own lives. So I will spare you the gorey details and just give you the highlights of the poor decisions I made at the time. Third grade was a fun time — my teacher was Ms. Jackson and she remains one of my most favorite teachers of all time. My love for her, however, did not keep me from talking to my friends in her class constantly. What I was chattering incessantly about, I can’t tell you, but I do know nothing I could have been discussing with my friends was as important as those foundational skills all 3rd graders should learn about reading, writing, mathematical thinking and science. It is embarrassing to admit that now, as someone who has been an educator for over 20 years, because there are few things as challenging or as annoying as trying to teach when there are students in the same classroom are having their own conversation at the same time.

Another important detail in this story is that I knew how to sign my mother’s name because she was teaching me how to fill out checks and balance a checkbook. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a huge show of trust in me that my mother taught me to sign her name — there’s a lot of power in that as I soon learned. She trusted me with something important — and as I proved soon after, I was not ready for the responsibility that came with that trust.

My teacher tried to curb my chatting in class by talking to me about it. She was a patient woman and believed in giving kids a chance to correct their behavior before getting anyone’s parents involved. But after asking me to hush one too many times, she decided to write a note home to my mother. Remember when email did not exist and if a teacher wanted to write home — it would either take a few days in the mail or needed to be ferried home by the offending child?

Well, I do. And this time, I knew I had the opportunity to use my new unique skill of signing my mother’s name to my advantage.

This moment — where I had a note to my mom about my bad behavior in school in hand and I also possessed the skill of signing her name — was a fork in the road moment for me. I had to choose whether I was going to do what was right or whether I was going to do what I knew was wrong.

The self-help author, Napoleon Hill once wrote, “Integrity is having a strong set of ethical principles, being able to tell the truth no matter the consequences, admitting to a wrong even if you could get away without doing it. Integrity is about doing the right thing; it is being incorruptible, honest, and above all, doing all these things when no one is around to see it.”

I asked students to think about the forks they encounter in the road. Those times when they could do what they know is right or when they can do something unethical to make things work to their advantage. We encounter these moments often — each time a student takes a test or completes an assessment — they can choose to use unauthorized help to their advantage, being dishonest with their teachers and interrupting their ability to learn deeply. When a cashier gives us too much change back — we can leave, knowing that the cashier will have to account for an error we could have helped correct. Some of these moments feel monumental and others can seem quite small, but our choices and the steps we take over time, create our paths and shape who we become.

I hate to admit it to you now, but I decided to forge my mother’s signature on the note from my teacher.  When I got to this point in my speech with the students, one of your dear children gasped so loudly, that I could hear it at the front of the gym. You have raised some wonderful children.

I told our students that at that time, even as a 3rd grader, I knew what I had done was wrong. I was not confused about it in the least. I knew I had misused my mother’s trust in me. And worse, I had compounded a wrong — I was already wrong for talking in class, but lying about it by forging my mother’s signature had made it worse. I was not living up to the person my mother was raising me to be. I was not even listening to the inner voice that said what I had done was wrong.

The truth finally came out — as it always does. And why wouldn’t it? I was still talking in class all the time! So my teacher eventually called my mother. To say my mother was furious is an extreme understatement. My mother is also an educator and one of her pet peeves was when my siblings and I made another teacher’s life difficult. We knew better and she knew that.

But she never missed a learning opportunity with us. So she talked to me and made me reflect back to her the lessons I had learned, including who I was and who I wanted to be. The best thing about my mother is that while she held me and my siblings to high standards and held us accountable to our missteps, she always gave us the opportunity to move ahead after any mistake.

During that time, because of my poor behavior, my teacher also had me stay after school. While I did whatever other little tasks she asked me to do during my detention, she talked to me. She asked me what I was interested in — I guess she wanted to know what I was talking about all the time.

But ultimately, she conveyed to me the same thing my mother did: that she cared about me and that she knew I was a good kid. I just had to choose it. Her kindness in the face of my poor decision-making may be the thing I reflect back on most of all from elementary school. She didn’t push me away or label me as a bad kid. Instead, in my worst moment, she decided to invest more in me. To pull me closer. Her attention and patience made me realize in a deep way that I didn’t want to be dishonest. I didn’t want to be someone who lied to the people in my community. So in 3rd grade, I really started that journey of self-reflection and monitoring who I was and who I want it to be.

Our children need opportunities to test out new responsibilities and to test the boundaries of their values. They also need adults in their lives to point out where they have fallen short of our expectations — and most importantly, when they fall short of the expectations they set for themselves. They need us to hold them accountable, but they also need us to hold them — the idea of their intrinsic goodness — they need us to hold that up for them, too, especially when they fall short, so they never forget that they can recover, they can learn to make better decisions next time. This is the gift my mother, Ms. Jackson, and so many other adults in my life gave me. And as an adult, it is a gift I try to impart to our students: an enduring belief that we can grow and learn from our mistakes.

I shared with our students that I am still working on fully reflecting who I want to be in my daily life through my decisions and behaviors. I also shared three strategies that have helped me in this process:

First, I suggested that they spend time reflecting on their life and behavior. Considering how what they do and say reflects who they want to be. Few of us achieve a state where our words and actions always reflect our highest ideals — and as adults, we can share these moments of our own with our children. We can reflect aloud when we wish we had done or said something different and we can model apologizing when we make a mistake. This isn’t easy to do, but modeling this work of reflecting on how well our actions reflect our values will give our children resources to use when we are not there with them.

I talked to students about learning to listen to their own inner voice. Sometimes this voice can be quiet — and our students will be the only ones who will be able to make a decision to do the right thing.

Second, I asked our students to fill themselves with examples of integrity and goodness — whether that is by hanging around the people who exhibit the qualities they want to cultivate in themselves, or whether they read, engage in a spiritual practice, view artwork, commune with nature, or find some other means of inspiring their sense of goodness in the world. I urged them to look in particular for examples of those who exhibit the courage it takes to do what is right when no one else asks them to, or when it is especially difficult to stand up and do that right thing.

And finally, I asked them not to be too hard on themselves. We talk about a growth mindset — it is one of our official school mindsets — but one of the skills of a growth mindset is self-compassion. We can’t keep trying if we beat ourselves up. People don’t learn well that way. I asked them to treat themselves with the kindness and compassion I see them treating others with each day on this campus. This gentleness with ourselves gives us the strength we need to continue — the resilience to keep rebuilding after each misstep.

Teachers and advisors are engaging students in discussions of integrity in the classroom. We had a year and a half where we were away from our regular learning routines. We want students to reenter strong — both academically and ethically.

Our goal is to raise students who are good to themselves and who always try to be good in the world. I look forward to partnering with you to help our students thrive this year and in making the Upper School community a place of integrity, learning, inclusion, and joy.