We are examining, in this series, five mistakes every new teacher makes. We have looked at four of those five mistakes. Now we take up the final one.
Mistake #5 – Wrong Assumptions about Convictions
New teachers often carry into their first position bundles of wrong assumptions. Within those bundles are assumptions about the new teachers’ convictions. They assume they have convictions, but what are convictions?
“Convictions are what I believe,” says the new teacher – and in saying it makes one of five mistakes every new teacher makes: assuming the presence of convictions without proof. Most of us assume we live by convictions – but can we prove that we do? What constitutes a conviction?
The United States Supreme Court wrestled with that question 43 years ago in a 1972 decision. The Court established guidelines in that decision – guidelines that the court system would use from then on to judge similar cases. The courts in your country may have similar guidelines.
Two Standards Regarding Beliefs
First, the U. S. Supreme Court laid down two standards that our beliefs must meet.
1) The Court declared, “One cannot hold a belief unless one can somehow describe that belief.” Though the Court does not ask us for powerful, carefully structured descriptions such as teachers should give students, it rejects mere feelings, hunches, or “everybody agrees” descriptions. The Court requires that we be able to show that we have spent time thoughtfully considering what we believe. When a teacher professes a belief in honesty, for example, can that teacher describe honesty? Can the teacher clearly define honesty – tell a court how authentic honesty looks?
2) The Court declared (and this is even more important) that one must show knowledge of one’s beliefs. The Court requires that we hold our beliefs individually and personally. We cannot hide behind a title. For example, a teacher cannot say after describing honesty, “I teach at Lincoln Honesty School. The school says this (the usual blah) about honesty.” That would be hiding behind a title. The Court would respond, “You may have shown us that the school holds a belief in honesty, but you must tell us what honesty means to you personally. That is the only way you will show us that you individually hold that belief.”
Two Categories of Beliefs
After establishing those two general standards, the U.S. Supreme Court went a step further. The Court said that all beliefs fall into one of two categories: conviction or preference. A teacher’s belief about honesty is either that teacher’s conviction or that teacher’s preference.
Why is that important? Why must we know whether our beliefs are convictions or preferences? United States courts protect our convictions, but they give us no protection for our preferences.
Many will be surprised when they first learn the Court’s definitions of preference and conviction.
1) Preference, as defined by the Supreme Court is a very strong belief. We can hold a preference with unbelievable passion and vigor, e.g. honesty. We believe in honesty so much that we teach it to every student, write articles and books about it, travel around the world giving seminars on it. The Court says that is not enough. That belief is a preference.
We might try to convince the court by showing that we support honesty financially, distribute honesty pamphlets in malls, post honesty videos on the Internet, comment about honesty on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. The Court says, “Insufficient”. It is a preference.
The Supreme Court ruled that even though one holds a belief very strongly, it may be no more than a preference that one will change under certain circumstances. The Court learned through years of judging experience that certain pressures motivate us to change beliefs. People who will change their belief about honesty under pressure hold only a preference, not a conviction.
What pressures might make us change our beliefs?
Teachers might decide to be totally honest, but what happens if the “right” peer group offers recognition? The desire to be accepted exerts pressure to adjust honesty beliefs downward to conform to the group. If we teachers bend, the beliefs were preferences.
Teachers’ families exert pressure. Suppose we announce a resolve to be totally honest. “Do you realize what that will do to us?” our families ask. A desire for family peace exerts pressure to reduce the resolve. If we teachers bend, the beliefs were preferences.
Fear of Lawsuits
Teachers may say, “We do believe in being totally honest, but we’re not willing to have someone sue us over it! That’s going too far! We might lose our jobs.” A desire to avoid lawsuits exerts pressure to back off. If the teachers bend, the beliefs were preferences.
Fear of Jail
Jail does not fill teachers’ best dreams. Bars and locks isolate one from family and friends. Rigid schedules dictate when one gets up, eats, exercises, etc. A desire to avoid jail exerts pressure to give up beliefs. If we teachers bend, the beliefs were preferences.
Fear of Death
Death poses an obvious, final test. When someone threatens death, the pressure to give up beliefs to save life overwhelms. Teachers who hold firmly to beliefs in the face of other pressures may surrender beliefs under this one. If so, the beliefs were merely preferences.
Preferences are very strong beliefs that one will give up under certain pressures. If you believe you should be totally honest, but you have the right to bend the truth, your belief is preference.
2) Conviction, as defined by the Supreme Court, is a belief you will not change. No matter what pressure comes, you refuse to change. Why? The Court says that a conviction is a belief that God requires. The Court says that if God orders our beliefs, we will withstand every test. The Court also tells us that a conviction is something we purpose, commit, and live with every fiber of our beings. We purpose convictions as a way of life.
If we stand firm even when no one else will stand with us, our beliefs are convictions.
If our beliefs are nonnegotiable, our beliefs are convictions.
If we hold tightly win or lose, our beliefs are convictions.
The Lifestyle Test
But we need one more test. None of us can tell with one hundred percent accuracy whether a person is telling the truth. We deceive even ourselves! We try to fool ourselves as to whether our beliefs are really convictions.
Back we go to the Supreme Court. They determined that the one way we can tell whether a person is telling the truth about convictions is to look at the lifestyle.
Actions speak more accurately than words so the Court insists that they see beliefs in action. They insist that you live your beliefs with consistency if you want to call them convictions.
Teachers who say they believe in honesty must live up to that belief. (Remember, we are using this one trait as an example of all character traits.) They cannot be perfectly honest, but their lifestyle will show consistently that their actions match their words. If their practice of honesty fluctuates, sometimes pouring out pure truth but often dribbling half-truths, the professed belief in honesty is not a conviction.
Five mistakes every new teacher makes, and each a result of assumption. We concluded by looking at convictions. Why? If a new teacher does not have convictions, or lacks the courage of convictions, his or her teaching will always be found lacking in value and authority.