Making Ethics Personal: A Three-Minute Solution to Combat Bullying

Jeffrey Leiken

The question is, will you create a context and culture in your school that will personalize the issues and do so with the intensity it takes to make a legitimate impact?

There must be reason it has been so emphasized and passed down through thousands of years of human history.

In the past thirty years the teaching of this principle—like many of the teachings of religion in general—has been widely displaced or even disregarded in our culture. It is certainly inconvenient, and in a culture that so values winning and self-aggrandizement, it may even be considered by some to be irrelevant.

In spite of this, it is still possible to teach this principle, instill and inspire our youth to embrace and embody its value, and enlist its help in creating a culture where the blatant disregard of dignity towards others is no longer tolerated.

It can even be done in three minutes.

A true story:

There was a boy in my class in sixth grade named Roger. His hair was always messy, he wore the same clothes to school most days and he smelled bad. No one wanted to sit next to him, and at recess all would run from him if he came close.

I can still picture the packs of kids running from him at recess, and can hear the girls screeching aloud any time he would approach. “Running from Roger” was a game we created. To him it must have been a hell he couldn’t escape.

It has been over thirty years since I was in sixth grade at Northmore School in Peoria, and since I last ran away from Roger. Roger was part of the group of kids who were bused in from “the south side.” Unlike the other kids who rode that bus, he was white like us, but we definitely knew that he wasn’t one of us.

Most of us came from middle class homes. We showered every day, wore clean clothes and got new shoes every time our feet grew bigger. Roger didn’t. He wore the same tethered boots to school all year, and had to change into “lost & found” shoes when we went to PE. He was just creepy to us.

One week Roger didn’t come to school.

When it was time to go to recess one day that week, Mr. N. asked us to stay behind for a few minutes. He closed the door to the classroom, came around to the front of his desk and leaned against it.

What he said next is something I will never forget, that quite literally changed my life. It is also something no teacher in America would say today.

I want to talk with you about one of your classmates. I see the way you all run from Roger on the playground, and the way no one sits with him at lunch.

I want to tell you all some things about Roger’s life.

I have been to his home. He lives in a rundown building in the government projects on the south side of town. His dad isn’t in his life. His mom works the night shift as a waitress at the Steak-n-Shake down by the river. He has two younger brothers he shares a room with. They sleep on the beds, he sleeps on a mattress on the floor. They have no car and no washing machine. They have to take the bus everywhere and have to do laundry at a Laundromat. They barely have enough money to pay rent. Some days he has no food at home.

Last month his mom didn’t have the money to pay their electricity bill and for five nights in the middle of January, they didn’t have heat. Roger got sick because he gave his blankets to his younger brothers and slept in the cold all week. That’s why he’s not in school this week.

The shoes he wears at PE are not “lost & found.” They are shoes I brought in for him. The hat and scarf he wore last week are ones that several teachers brought in and gave him.

I thought you all should know this about your classmate.

You can go to recess now.

We got up and walked out in stunned silence.

When Roger returned the next week, we invited him to sit with us. We shared our food with him. At first he didn’t believe it. Then he accepted our food and eventually would bring a small collection of food home with him most days. This continued through the end of the year, which was the last time I ever saw him.

It is interesting when I reflect back on what Mr. N. did in having that “chat” with us that day in school. He opened our eyes, opened our hearts and made the concepts we spoke about in religious school something totally real. The thing is that this wasn’t religious school; it was public school—the place our parents sent us to prepare us for college and eventually a job.

This chat wasn’t in the curriculum and certainly wasn’t in the textbooks. It was something quite real in our life, and the lesson offered was critical for our development into moral and responsible people.

Jewish day schools are charged with the challenge to teach morality, along with helping these students get the grades and test scores to get into college, and to do so by creating a safe, conducive environment for all that learning to take place. Talking about the concepts in classes on Jewish ethics, though, rarely has the impact to change lives. Making it so utterly, undeniably personal, as Mr. N. did with us in those three minutes in 1980, still does.

Had he just implemented a policy that it was no longer okay to run away from kids on the playground, or created assigned seating in the lunchroom so we had to include him, it wouldn’t have had the effect. Ironically, even if he had told us about Roger’s life, then told us precisely how he wanted us to treat him differently than we had been, it wouldn’t have had the effect. Instead he left it to us.

Mr. N. knew—whether through pure genius or just simple luck—exactly what to say to us to make it real, to appeal to something we all had the potential for and then leave it to us to create a bully-free environment. Through the rest of middle and high school, I can’t recall a single student who was in our sixth grade class who ever participated in teasing another student or who didn’t stand up for someone whom others teased. I can recall at least a half-dozen incidents where this proved true.

To say that this was all due to Mr. N.’s talk that day would be an exaggeration. His talk was the tipping point. It began with a thousand messages from parents, clergy and others that created the groundwork for the impact of that experience to last as long as it did.

In many ways, the great challenge schools face in creating a compassion-driven, emotionally safe culture is compounded by the lack of prevalence of these messages in the world outside of school. School personnel also often cite the lack of time and opportunities they get to address these issues in school, due in large part to the pressure to meet academic standards and the expectations of parents.

However, as Mr N. demonstrated, the opportunities exist, and the time it takes can be three minutes or less. The question is, will you create a context and culture in your school that will prioritize this, personalize the issues and do so with the intensity it takes to make a legitimate impact?

What made Mr. N.’s three minutes last for so many of us?

Three things that made it last:

  • He spoke to us directly, person-to-person. He wasn’t just being an adult whose job it was to teach us what was in the textbooks. He was being the model of a humane, ethical man—a true mensch. In our world then, just as in today’s world, meeting someone who was the “real deal” (or as they say now, “legit”), who truly lives in integrity with these higher order values, is a rare experience. Such people tend to stand out, and the words they speak carry far more gravitas in kids’ lives.
  • It was real and it was raw. There was nothing clichéd, pre-packaged or scripted about it. It wasn’t a “Chicken Soup For The Soul” well edited story designed to tug at heart strings. It wasn’t a YouTube video with a moving story, set to inspirational music—things that are easily dismissed by today’s youth who have a discerning resistance to what they find “phony” or inauthentic.
  • It was personal, tangible and specific. It wasn’t talking about a parable from a great work written thousands of years ago. There was no interpretation or translation needed. Today’s youth are often ill-trained in regard to thinking in metaphor. They need things spelled out for them with specificity.

How can you replicate this in your school?

  • Encourage (or require!) your faculty to share stories of real life incidents they witness, hear of or participate in, that demonstrate or emphasize the enormity of what it takes to live a truly moral, compassionate life. These stories should also include the mistakes they made or the opportunities they missed. Offering personal stories of shortcomings tends to build credibility for today’s youth.
  • Ask faculty to regularly “catch” students in moments when they behave like mensches. They need to personally commend the student in a way that makes lasting impact.

Thus, saying to a student, “Josh can you stay behind a minute… Listen I think the way you always help people out with their math is really great” is one thing.

However, saying instead, something like this is in an entirely different league: “Hey Josh. Stick around for a minute…. Listen, I don’t know whether anyone else notices it or not, but I want you to know how much I respect you for being so willing to help Jennifer and Alex with their math. In a world where it seems so few people really take the time to help others out, you really are a rare kind of guy. I don’t know where it will lead you in your life, but I do know that it really says something about your character. I truly believe that if we had a whole world filled with people who did little things like I see you do, we’d have a whole lot less problems.”

Ask your faculty to catch every student at some point during the year and give them a message like that.

  • Build discussion and training of how to handle complex social issues and difficult conversations into curriculum. You will have your students' rapt attention because the learning is so immediate and so relevant to their lives. You will also be training them in real life skills that will transcend just helping them cope with the pressures of youth social culture.

Where we place our attention is where we get our results. It is also what we teach kids is most important.

Somewhere along the way the top priority for many schools has evolved into an almost constant competition to be the highest achieving academic environment. In winning at that race, we are losing our chance to play a serious role in helping to raise moral citizens who possess the values and the character to ensure we live in a healthy, thriving society.

We will probably never give up the obsession with standardized tests and the race to compete with China and India in cutting edge discoveries in science and math.

But we can become excellent—even the best in the world—at raising our youth to embrace the most ancient and universal wisdom of all and in so doing, solve many of the problems science and intellect will never be able to solve.♦

Jeffrey Leiken (, President of Evolution Mentoring International and creator of the Boys To Mensch® Rite-of-Passage program, specializes in meeting the unique needs of gifted and sensitive youth, empowering them to lead extraordinary lives, and training others to do the same. He can be reached at

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011