Redefining the Cornerstones

Advisories gathered to reassess the meaning of character and courtesy

Advisories gathered in circles during Feb. 23 form meetings, marking the beginning of
formal conversations among students on the two more amorphous cornerstones:
courtesy and character.  But Head of Upper School John Ashton began considering the two cornerstones during his first days at Hockaday back in 2009.

“I very much appreciate the historyof schools,” Ashton said. “I read the book that was published in ’85 about thehistory of the school and talked with a lot of faculty to learn about the core values of Hockaday. Through that conversation, I gained a real understanding of the importance of the cornerstones.”

But Ashton wanted to develop a more purposeful and intentional language around courtesy and character as their meaning has evolved since Hockaday’s founding nearly 100 years ago. He wished to establish sets of words that describe each cornerstone.

So at the start of this school year, Ashton devoted all three fall faculty meetings to cornerstone conversations. And this February, students met and followed a similar procedure: they divided into small groups and discussed the meanings of the cornerstones and methods of fostering them in the community.

Upper School students formulated suggestions for integrating the lessons of courtesy and character throughout the community.

“I think there are ways we could bring it out during the day without devoting a ton of time to it,” sophomore Marisa said. “But I feel like we are really prepared with everything we do in Middle School. Most people have a really good understanding of the cornerstones.”

Senior Zoe agrees that, in the Upper School, courtesy and character should not be taught but expected.

“In Lower School they forced lessons on us, but I think now we don’t do anything that really fosters these behaviors,” she said. “I think at the ages of 14 to 18, there’s no way you can teach character like that. You can create environments that help people explore
how they act, but I don’t know that they are necessarily taught.”

Freshman Sarah also believes that implicit expectations of courtesy and character exist in the Upper School.

“The environment of Hockaday supports people getting along,” she said.

While acknowledging the already courtesy-and-character-conscious atmosphere within Hockaday, English teacher Janet Bilhartz points out the necessity of the students’ role in promoting the two cornerstones in addition to the faculty’s.

“I think on the whole we’re good about [courtesy and character] at Hockaday. I think it’s one of the things that makes it a pleasant school to teach in,” she said. “I think students have to feel the need for displays of courtesy, and they have to reinforce that in each
other. And I think on the other hand, we as teachers have responsibilities to require it in students. ”

English teacher and Honor Council head sponsor Calli Birch recognizes the opportunity for character examination during English class through discussions of human choices and identity within novels. But she envisions character growth in other classes through adherence to the honor code.

“When I think about, for example, math class, I think of having integrity, doing your own work and following the honor code,” she said. “I see a very strong relationship with Honor Council and making honorable decisions. The honor code I believe facilitates and helps
foster the environment we enjoy at Hockaday—the freedom and the openness and
the casualness that we have with one another.”

After examining notes from both sets of meetings, Ashton believes that Hockaday community members boast common understandings of courtesy and character.

“Glancing at first at the girls’ responses from all four forms, there is so much cross-over, and I think it affirms that we understand these ideas, at least character, in very similar ways,” he said. “I think the challenge in all of this and the relevance is making a
habit of ourselves as people to commit to acting in those ways. That’s the hard part, because we are a human community. We are not beyond that.”

Ashton illuminated the consistent language used by students and teachers in explaining the meaning of character: integrity, honesty, courage, authenticity, perseverance, accountability, humility, the ability to exercise discipline and self control, empathy and
compassion.

Courtesy, on the other hand, was described in terms of: gratefulness, unconditional respect for others, respect of self, making others feel welcome, being inclusive and being considerate.

Ashton assures students that he and other faculty members “don’t want rigid conversation during advisory,” but he does foresee the integration of cornerstone studies into more subtle arenas such as uniform enforcement or common themes within each academic subject and grade level.

While precise articulations of the cornerstones still remain up for debate, one piece of the future is guaranteed by Ashton: students can anticipate further cornerstone discussion and discovery.

– Hailey