Dear Educators of the World, Can We Interest You in a Platinum Upgrade to the Golden Rule? 

What word would you fill in the blank space of this sentence with, if you were talking with a student in your classroom in an appeal to their capacity to empathize with their peers?

“Please treat others as _____ would like to be treated.”

Did you think of the word “you” to complete the sentence?

If so, you are right in line with the tenets of what is commonly referred to as the classic “Golden Rule,” a philosophy referenced in multiple faith traditions. Whether it is “Wish for others what you wish for yourself” (Islam), “Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Hinduism), “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Christianity), “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddhism), “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor” (Judaism), or “Lay not on any soul a load you would not wish to be laid upon you” (Baha’i Faith), there is a common thread of developing empathy and making choices of how to relate to others through examining one’s own personal frame of reference.

What if we were to instead place the word “they” in the blank space of the aforementioned sentence, as in “treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Would this change in semantics imply that instead of perceiving how to treat others based on our “own” personal biases, that we would be tasked to find out how other people choose to be treated based in “their” vantage point?

In Youth Equity Stewardship, an arts-based and intergenerational process of fostering equity, inclusion and excellence in schools with Co-Founder Benjie Howard, we explore this idea thoroughly. In our facilitations, we have experienced the transformative impact that understanding how people want to be treated, by asking people how they want to be treated, is perhaps a great way for people to be treated. This idea, a Golden Rule 2.0 so to speak, we are calling the “Platinum Upgrade.”

Now by no means, and before offense is taken, is advocating the idea of the Platinum Rule intended to be an affront or insult to the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions since there are many healthy ways the Golden Rule can be manifested and has been useful as a model for compassion and creating peace between people and nations. However, the upgrade suggestion is based in the hope that we can avoid the potential harm that can be felt, and damage done, when assumptions are made about others because we are operating from our own individual lenses.

The Platinum Upgrade requires us to seek out a deep understanding of others so that we can be responsive to their needs. Here are a few paths to consider that we have utilized in our work that are effective starting points for shifting our language and practice.

Rules to Agreements

The implementation of rules follows the tenets of a Golden Rule philosophy in that it does not ask what others need but rather comes to a conclusion from the vantage point of an unshared place of authority, be it an individual (teacher/principal) or an institution (school, government). As humans grow in our critical thinking abilities, even at a very young age, we become inclined to question these rules based on their relevance to our lives.

Particularly in schools we are governed by certain rules that, in principle, might hold value in their positive leanings. For example, the “be” rules such as be respectful, be kind, and be courteous as well as the “don’t” rules like don’t interrupt, don’t putdown, don’t fight etc. are all seemingly contributing to a healthier community. Unfortunately, there is an idiom for this systemic illusion, it is that “Rules are made to be broken.”

To provide an atmosphere that fosters collective unity and builds on the human brains natural inclination for social connection, we offer agreements. Community agreements, within a school setting, ask the question of each member, young and old, “What do we each need to be safe, supported, respected, empowered, encouraged and successful within this learning process together?” Collecting these ideas and responding accordingly with a set of agreements is being accountable and equitable across a diverse range of unique needs. When this happens, both the individual and collective ownership of these agreements creates the sustainable force every teacher longs for to maximize their positive interactions and educational impact in the classroom.

Punishment to Restoration

The emphasis on punishing individuals for infractions to the expectations and norms of a community has roots in the self-centered socially-accepted idea that if it “worked for me it should also work for you.” This is clearly a gloomier perspective on a Golden Rule dynamic of seeing ourselves in others. Generations have grown up in the school system with the common incentive for behavior being a fear of reprimand as a guiding practice. Many people have survived, and perhaps even still thrived in this climate. However, this “doing unto others what others have done to us” policy has led to perpetuating tragic racial disproportionality and a national crisis that has been coined the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In light of systemic acceptance of punitive approaches to discipline, there is surprisingly no credible body of evidence or research that we have found that supports punitive or authoritarian measures in addressing or turning around school behavior and discipline. Just as concerning, there is no indication that harsh consequences builds community or carries weight in developing personal responsibility or social accountability. It seems what has been done in the past more easily carries into the future (perhaps due to Newton’s First Law of Motion) unless we re-envision a new way of relating to one another.

Restoration is the Platinum Upgrade we propose for a deeply humanizing, common-sense and research-based practice for visionaries looking to transform our educational institutions in crisis. Restoration is about bringing ourselves back into balance, health and alignment to the best version of our personal and collective selves. It is an trans-continental indigenous concept where people have found ways to accentuate the necessity of our inter-dependence. Rather than pushing away and calling-out those who step out of line, restorative ways pull-in closer and call-in the circle of community to develop a plan of action.

The irony of some of the criticism of restorative practice which includes being too soft and placing an unfair and impossible burden on educators whose job is “to teach,” is that being restorative is more about what effective culturally responsive educators do anyway. These ways can be summarized as simply holding the highest possible standard of accountability for equity, inclusion, engagement, ownership, collaboration, cultural empowerment and justice for all members of our school community.

Leadership to Stewardship 

If you could live in a world where all people in key positions of leadership ascribed to the Golden Rule in their carrying out of their duties, would you choose that reality? Without a blink of an eye it is likely most would accept this. There are great examples of people who shine brightly in their leadership roles but let’s also keep it real. Many of the authority figures on display in multiple arenas of power are fraught with actions revealing the personal qualities we least admire which on a short list can include greed, dishonesty, hubris, intolerance, willful ignorance and apathy. Whether it is power which “tends to corrupt,” an idea ascribed to Baron Acton, or something inherent in how we expect our leaders to lead as “being someone who takes control,” we have great room for improvement in this area as a world at large.

Leadership, however, can be problematic even when in alignment with a Golden Rule ethic. This occurs when a leader believes that they understand their constituents, whether they be voters for a politician, students for a teacher, or teachers for a principal, because they believe they can attach their personal views onto the people they serve and then make decisions based on that likely false projection. This presumption of understanding, which is a misunderstanding, can be remedied with a new vision for those in positions of critical responsibility.

The Platinum Upgrade is the vision of “stewardship.” Stewardship is commonly associated historically with environmental protection/preservation advocacy but has significant relevance in our school institutions. Our working definition of stewardship is “action that arises from caring and informed relations to one’s natural and cultural communities.” That said, let me explain the dynamic associated with the upgrade.

A steward is committed to being “informed,” in other words, knowledgeable of those in the community and devoted to a “caring” that requires a deep set of listening skills that build the wisdom and insight thru communicating with others rather than relying on personal experience.   A steward realizes the intersection of our cultural and natural spheres. This wisdom is due to being involved, staying connected, and being concerned with people and all our relations. All means all and so this includes all human beings, animals, plants, the full spectrum of diverse organisms and the essential elements that compose our living planet. Using this definition, there is no way to be an oppressive or authoritarian steward because those qualities could only exist as an oxymoron.

A Córima Conclusion

The through-line to the Platinum Upgrade, whether referring to stewardship, restorative practice or agreements rather than rules, is the ability to share power with others rather than having power over others.  My cultural background includes ancestry from the Raramuri (also called Tarahumara) who primarily inhabit the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. In the traditional language there is a term Córima, which means essentially that “one has more power when it is shared” and furthermore that “those who have resources are obligated to share.” To “truly” share power in the educational arena, we will need to “truly” understand one another and challenge the tendency to believe that everyone thinks, feels and needs exactly the same way we do.

To reiterate my intentions from the beginning, I am not trying to criticize anybody who advocates the Golden Rule. It has a relevance and accurate placement within various cultural dynamics and contexts. I would never criticize anyone’s viewpoint without first walking a mile in their shoes because, as I once learned from comedian Jack Handey, “you are then a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

But joking aside, if you would like your shoes back please reach out to us to get more information on these areas we explore creatively in our Youth Equity Stewardship process. There is much more to share and learn from one another.

Written by

Wade Antonio Colwell is a learner. His calling to education involves serving school communities as a “creative catalyst” for deepening and healing relationships across generation and difference. As a rising advocate for systemic equity, inclusion and excellence, Wade understands the power in engaging the artistic modalities of song, spoken-word, movement, ceremony and restorative practice. He is the co-founder of Youth Equity Stewardship (YES!), an arts-based, experiential and inter-generational process of collectively uplifting our learning environments. His touring multi-media performance Borderless, with YES! Co-Founder Benjie Howard, is a cross-genre musical journey of folk & hip hop that examines the intersections of race, class, identity, immigration, sexual orientation and gender while rooted in environmental & indigenous peoples’ justice. His professional journey includes roles as national consultant for Deep Equity/Corwin Press, co-founder/producer of pioneering academic hip hop duo Funkamentalz, lead restorative practices educator with New York City’s Counseling in Schools, and curriculum specialist & founding poet laureate of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American/Raza Studies Department.

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