Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The First Week Back: Where Engaged Citizens are Shaped

By Don Cooper, Director of Civic Initiatives, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Tuesday marks the first day of school in our home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Schools in other cities will soon follow, with our home state’s 1.5 million kindergarten through 12th grade students all being back in the classroom shortly after Labor Day.

The first week back is when teachers and school leaders focus their attention on some of the preconditions necessary for a great education: creating a climate and culture that promotes the physical and emotional safety necessary for learning to take place. Some teachers describe this work as the start of building a “community of learners” throughout the academic year that is centered on shared values and beliefs of how they will treat each other, share with each other, and learn together. One tool that helps foster this community is a classroom “social contract,” which is an agreement between everyone in the classroom on how they will treat each other.

The idea behind the social contract is simple: rather than having a teacher impose rules on students, the teacher acts as a guide to help students come to a consensus on behavior expectations. Once consensus is reached, these expectations are recorded in kid-friendly language—for example: be kind, be a good listener, don’t be a bully, be honest, don’t use bad language, ask for help—that evolves across grades as student understanding of the concepts underlying these expectations increases. The social contract is posted, and everyone is invited to sign their names to it to affirm consent. When the teacher finds it necessary to adjust student behavior, the student can be redirected back to these expectations. It’s not the teacher’s rules that the student is breaking, it’s the agreement that the student had with classmates.

The elegance of the social contract is that it not only results in some classroom rules, but it also is a way to engage students in self-government. Our nation’s founders envisioned public education [LINK TO LAST WEEK’S ARTICLE] as the means to convey our democratic values to the next generation. This includes rightly orienting students to the source of our state and national government’s authority. “All political power is inherent in the people,” begins our home state’s constitution. “Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security and protection.” A classroom social contract is a small-scale manifestation of this. The expectations that it contains are not there for the teacher’s benefit, but for that of the students; it’s their learning that’s affected.

Perhaps more importantly, the social contract teaches a foundational lesson about our government: in our society, there is no “teacher” or law-giver to tell us what to do. Yes, our nation’s constitution and legal framework provide both our government and us with boundaries and direction. Most of these were established by generations who came before us and have been carried forward because of the wisdom contained within. (A savvy teacher does the same thing; after realizing the importance of certain expectations, these expectations seem to be nudged into students’ minds and find a way into that classroom’s social contract year after year.) Yes, public administrators at all levels of government continue to create new rules to try to shape our behavior. But all of these do’s and don’ts can be changed through active citizenship. By giving students the ability to shape their classroom expectations, teachers are preparing them in a small but important way to engage with their peers throughout their lives to participate in their community’s civic institutions. This engagement, after all, is what makes self-government possible.   

Indeed, next week’s exercise of creating a climate and culture is more than just setting behavioral expectations: it is students’ first lesson in civics for the year.

So let’s make the first week back a good one.

Discussion Questions

  1. Outside of school, different “social contracts” exist to govern how we will cooperate with each other and treat each other. What are some other types of “social contracts” that students might encounter throughout their lives?  
  2. Good citizenship is easy for students to practice when someone, like a teacher, is monitoring. What can a teacher do to encourage students to be good citizens when no one is watching?
  3. In what other ways can teachers pass on our democratic values through common routines and procedures?  

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