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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

On being well: Broken promises

by Julia Johnson

The BCTF, through Teacher and the School Staff Alert, does an excellent job of keeping teachers informed on education, provincial politics, teaching practices in developing countries, our health, safety and wellness, and our professional and personal growth. The information on Staff Alert #25 regarding provincial politics and Gordon Campbell’s broken promises caused me to ponder the act of making promises from a wellness perspective and the behaviour and qualities of a person who makes or breaks promises.

Throughout our lives, the promises made to us, the promises we make, and the broken promises we endure influence our choices, which eventually defines how honourable we are. A promise is an oral or written agreement to do, or not do, something, and making a promise gives assurance to another for a particular expectation. A promise upheld enables the one to whom the promise has been made to trust the one who has made the promise. With trust comes a confidence that the person making the promise is honest and reliable, that the person has integrity.

Prior to the federal election in June 2004, CBC radio, broadcast a program with Michael Enright as host on the practicality of election promises made by political leaders and to what degree the electorate could expect election promises to be kept. In the discussion were political-science professors from the universities of Saskatoon and Windsor and a former Reform Party MP from Saskatchewan. The professors said that election promises are made by political leaders to get elected, and that there was little expectation for the leaders to keep their promises.

What surprised me about this view was the acceptance that election promises are a means to an end and that the question of integrity was not part of the discussion. If professors of our universities think that our expectation for political leaders to keep their election promises is of little importance and that is the message they share with others, then it explains why the leaders we elect fail to meet our expectations for honesty, reliability, and integrity and why political leaders lack commitment to accept responsibility for running a trustworthy government.

Even though this view of our political leaders is symptomatic of the breakdown of societal values, manifested in corporate scandals, swelling prison populations, growing divorce rates, and increasingly dysfunctional relationships, when it is supported by our institutions of higher learning, our hope for finding something different, something we can count on, something we can believe in, is undermined, and we become disenchanted with the possibilities for change.

How do we reclaim integrity and the associated values of honesty, reliability, sincerity, and righteousness in our leaders? If we want a citizenry that values those qualities in our leaders, we must relearn the art of making promises.

We first learned about promises from our parents. We learned that a promise is something we make to someone and there are times when a promise can be broken if there is a good reason. If the promise was kept, we learned about expectations, obligations, commitment, sincerity, reliability, and responsibility. And if the promise was broken we learned about disappointment, restitution, and forgiveness.

We developed a belief system about promises, and over time, we learned to make promises of our own. We made promises to our parents, teachers, friends, mentors, partners, and children. We learned that when we made a promise we did so with the intention of keeping it and when a promise was broken, we were greatly troubled. However, somewhere in our journey to adulthood, the simplicity of making a promise and keeping it became more complex.

Today, promises are more about getting something, winning affection or position, and appeasing guilt. Promises have been sacrificed in the busy lives we live. In our efforts to respond to increasing family expectations and work-related demands, we began to put the needs of others before our own needs; consequently promises became too difficult to keep. We learned to make and break promises, and we believed that that was all right.

If we want quality leaders and a society that respects the value of a promise, we must relearn how to make and keep promises. We do this by making a promise to ourselves. When we make a promise to ourselves and keep it, we establish an inner integrity, and people begin to notice. They see us as someone who "walks the talk," someone who is dependable, and means what she or he says, someone who can be counted on to get a job done, someone people can trust.

A very simple way to relearn how to make and keep promises is to begin with promising yourself to do a wellness activity each day. That simple promise becomes your expression of the value you place on yourself, and it is a safe way to learn the importance of accepting responsibility for a commitment through which respect is earned. When we make commitments to ourselves and keep them, we execute the priorities in our life with integrity, and we become as the change we want to see in the world.

Julia Johnson, a learning resource teacher at Red Bluff School, in Quesnel, is a BCTF PD wellness associate. johnsonj@abccom.bc.ca.

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