The Presence of Dignity

By Susan Nordenger, assistant head of school for community engagement

The most luxurious possession, the most valuable treasure that everyone has, is their personal dignity. —Jackie Robinson

I am committed to the concept of dignity. Not only because it can change the world, but because I know it has changed me. The tenets of dignity are aspirational and must be attended to daily.

The pandemic has allowed time and space for reflection and has cemented my passion for the dignity ethos. Author Donna Hicks, Ph.D., reminds us, “It is nothing less than our responsibility to care for our own dignity and that of others—to be the stewards and caretakers of the gift of dignity.” 

As an educator, I know that we are not only capable of building a culture of dignity, we have a duty and an obligation to do so. It is an essential tool for our children, the communities we live in and ourselves.
As we honor our own dignity through daily practice, we begin to see the world differently. Our lens changes. Only through a sense of my own self-worth can I offer or extend dignity to others. Wrestling with and understanding our intrinsic value allows us to build bridges and make connections. Dignity fosters a sense of safety and belonging.

Imagine the difference it would make if our children woke up every day knowing their true value and worth, regardless of their test scores or performance. Aristotle shared, “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.”  As teachers, coaches and parents, we have the unique opportunity to affirm and accept our students’ authentic selves and show them how much they matter—simply for who they are.

The dignity model, developed by Dr. Hicks, provides the building blocks for nurturing and creating community. The essential elements of dignity are a toolkit for how to treat one another. When we adopt it as a mindset, we are cognizant that we will need to stretch to uphold and live out the dignity tenets.

So often, when we feel the absence of dignity, we’re quick to point it out or criticize that the model is fractured. We can assume that some people are incapable of change or that things will never get better. Assaults on our dignity can leave us cynical and erode our trust.

Yet, we cannot let ourselves give up on dignity just because we don’t always feel it or see it. Dignity violations happen and will occur as part of the journey to continuously grow as a human being. 

We have the ability to affect change. Living with dignity begins with me—it starts with you. With practice, it becomes a habit and a lifestyle. The optimist in me chooses to celebrate it. Because the work of being dignity agents is aspirational, every day provides a new opportunity to get it right.

Walking through campus on any given day, there are constant reminders of the presence of dignity: Our kids are notorious for pausing in the doorway to thank their teacher or say goodbye—acknowledgment. Students learn about different cultures, traditions, and lifestyles and celebrate unique differences—acceptance of identity. An administrator pausing to assume the best intent before reacting—benefit of the doubt. The high fives from a coach speak volumes about the relationships formed through mentorship—recognition. An advisor and advisee tackle tough conversations—understanding. The Lower School buddy bench fosters friendship on the playground—safety and inclusion. Our student-athletes thoughtfully choosing their core covenants and encouraging their teammates to live by them—independence.

While far from perfect, this school has all the needed ingredients to be a community where dignity is amplified. My wish is to extend to others the same grace and trust that has so often sustained me. I long for the self-awareness to be more fully present, to listen to, accept and affirm those around me. Above all, I hope to always be prepared with a transparent and honest apology when I fall short or let others down.

Suggested reading:
Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity by Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple

Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

Susan Nordenger
Susan Nordenger

Assistant Head of School for Community Engagement

Susan Nordenger never believed that teaching is a job but rather a calling. From the first day she stepped into her La Jolla Country Day School classroom, she knew she found the place she wanted to call home. After 10 years of teaching in the Middle School, Mrs. Nordenger worked with students to create an all-school community service program. This 19-year endeavor has been the most rewarding phase of her career.

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