White men — like me — often reach disturbingly high levels of arrogance in their fourteenth year of life. Let’s support that claim with evidence from my own experience. Seven things which I was almost certain about at 14.

  1. Everyone likes me.
  2. Anyone that doesn’t like me doesn’t really know me.
  3. Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.
  4. I’m smarter than almost everyone, especially my history teacher. Oh, and my father.
  5. Intelligence correlates with one’s ability to regurgitate sports statistics. That’s why I watch SportsCenter twice daily.
  6. The best way to express one’s intellect is to “own” someone in conversation, preferably in a public takedown.
  7. Everyone likes me.

I now realize I was not an outlier: I spend most of my days with rooms full of not-so-charmingly arrogant 14-year-old boys. I love teaching middle school, and I love my boys. But I’ve begun to wonder, how does the middle school experience contribute to entitlement and arrogance? More importantly, how can we promote virtues like humility — and not just false modesty — instead? To clarify, humility is one’s realization that we exist in interdependent circles of relationships. It is, as Beverly Lanzetta teaches, to know that we need each other, and not just to climb up the ladder of success.

Recent advances in brain imaging have led to new understandings of the middle school brain. Middle schoolers are in a “sensitive period” for social and emotional learning (SEL): We might think of them as social cue sponges. As such, our actions as educators reinforce behaviors: Some we want to see and others we may not. Therefore, when we lose our temper with a student, we are endorsing misbehavior. While this example seems self-evident, numerous other practices and approaches in our schools reinforce social and emotional behaviors in ways we may not intend. For example, when we ask students to engage in structured argumentation, we are suggesting that argumentation is good — but is it always?

The notion of an SEL-sensitive period for middle schoolers makes the job of their teachers exceptionally high stakes. Teachers must consider all the learnings in our schools, from the intentionally taught curriculum and the implicit student experience. In this spirit, and with my arrogant 14-year-old self in mind, here are two considerations for cultivating humility in our students.

1. Embrace uncertainty with dialogue, not debate.

My colleagues and I recently designed a unit of inquiry into the world of ethics. After introducing a few ethical frameworks, we invited students to participate in Socratic Seminars focused on ethical questions salient to their lives. For example, after reading an article about Sweden’s flight shaming movement, students were asked to discuss the question, “Is it ethical to fly?” This one hit close to home for most of us — just one transatlantic flight a year breaks the carbon emissions budget — and for folks at international schools, we might take four or five of these flights annually. As teachers and students examined the ethics of our actions, humility came to the fore. No one could find a moral high ground. The students’ discourse centered on uncertainty: There were no easy answers.

Good teachers provoke thought: They relish the questions that fall in the decimal places between binaries. However, how students engage with these questions is equally important. Performance tasks that value dialogue and listening reinforce a humble approach to inquiry. Yet, teachers often ask students to take stances, make claims, and support their claims with argumentation and evidence. When schools focus on debate and argumentation, we entrench belief and move our students toward dogma and away from humility.

2. Expose our students to the otherness of “the other.”

I remember exactly one book from my middle school years: Night by Elie Wiesel. Full disclosure: This may be the only book I read in middle school. I remember starting Night just before my bedtime and reading it cover-to-cover. I was gripped by the atrocities of the Holocaust and the trauma experienced by Wiesel. I cried in my father’s Lay-Z-Boy, heartbroken. A radical encounter with “the other” had punctured my bubble-wrapped, small-town Texas mind. Into my privileged childhood entered the words of Wiesel: illuminating the cruelty I did not know existed in the world.

In Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, Ariel Burger recounts moments of discussion and storytelling in Wiesel’s Boston University classroom: a class that Burger helped facilitate as a graduate student. Burger writes:

Professor Wiesel emphasized difference. ‘It is the otherness of the other that fascinates me…What can I learn from him? What does he see that I do not, cannot?’ In his writing and teaching he celebrated the madmen, the rebels, the outsiders, the underdogs — the others in literature and in life.

We each have blind spots, just as every candle casts its own shadow. Only when you place a second candle next to the first do the shadows disappear, illuminated by the other’s light. The beginning of dialogue is the knowledge that we can do this for one another.”

I no longer watch SportsCenter twice daily, and I don’t think I’ve “owned” a conversation in a few decades. These days, I teach middle school: a beautifully sensitive period for students’ social and emotional development. As my middle school students try on identities and wrestle with their values, they look to my colleagues and me for guidance. Every word, lesson, and action are opportunities for us to demonstrate a rejection of this polarized, hyper-argumentative world. Opportunities to remind students that we need each other to learn and grow. We all have blind spots, some more than others. May we all be fortunate enough to have teachers move us closer to another’s light.