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Teaching the test to the next generation

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Here’s a story every Rotarian knows. In 1932, Herbert John Taylor crafted a simple measuring stick of ethics for employees of his struggling cookware company, a short code its 250 workers could easily memorize. The guidelines’ embrace helped rescue the business by marking it as a company with integrity. Eleven years later, The Four-Way Test was adopted as one of Rotary’s guiding principles. 

Taylor, RI’s 44th president, championed the code in all aspects of life. “Let us apply The Four-Way Test to our relations with youth, he wrote, “and then I am certain we will all become more determined to give as much as possible of our time. 

The Rotary Club of Fort Collins, Colo., has done just that. The club has introduced the principles to tens of thousands of public school students since the mid-1990s, bringing Rotarians into classrooms to facilitate honest discussion about how the test can help solve personal predicaments.

The classroom initiative began in 1994, when club members approached officials at the local Poudre School District about incorporating Rotary’s values into the curriculum. “Another teacher on the other side of town and I both kind of spontaneously combusted with enthusiasm at the outset, says Carol Ballain, who with Tyann Kuehnast, another now-retired speech teacher, joined Rotarians in drafting written scenarios – ethical challenges – for the youths, tapping input from the students themselves.

Qualifying participants can use their new knowledge of the test to apply for the Better Business Bureau/Rotary Ethics Scholarships; after participating, students write an evaluation; the program has been adapted for business students in college; the toolkit gives detailed instructions on how to run the program.

“Some scenarios deal with very important lifesaving issues, then some are very lighthearted, says Bill Schaffter, a club past president. Rotarians explain the test, but sit back to let students take the lead as they discuss the situations, typically plucked from a cup. Students take turns as discussion leaders, and all are required to participate; their engagement levels are evaluated. “The students have to come up with the best decision. Usually, there is one Rotarian sitting at a table or a desk, meeting with four to six students each, says Schaffter.

While a Rotarian is assigned to each group, “We didn’t want to just go into the schoolrooms and give a presentation, Schaffter says. “We wanted to put an activity together that was interactive – listening and looking eye to eye, hearing each other’s concerns.

Common themes included cheating and whether to turn in a popular student caught in misbehavior. “Bullying is a big topic, says Max Getts, a past governor of District 5440 and a notable champion of the test whose name graces an annual award given to a community or club member for his or her embrace of the characteristics of the test. In one instance, Getts recalls, students “went over and apologized to a girl they had been picking on.

And the Rotarians? “It has an effect on their lives, too. Overall, we have about 90 percent participation among the club members, says Getts, who for 20 years was a mainstay as a classroom facilitator. Schaffter says Getts “believes in The Four-Way Test so strongly, so positively, that it almost gushes out of him. 

 “Now, more than ever, teaching values is important, says Deana Kochis, a Fossil Ridge High School teacher who uses the exercise in her English classes. The five or six Rotarians who join each session “really get down to the students’ level and let the students talk. They listen, she says.

Sometimes the talk can be tough, even if Rotarians are implored to remain in the background. Ballain remembers one participating Rotarian, a district attorney, being taken aback when a group of students agreed that cheating on an exam might be acceptable. “I understood where they were coming from, says Ballain. “We are putting so much pressure on them. But he gave them stern advice. He told them, ‘Kids, it’s not just in class you need to be thinking about. It’s your reputation. If you’ve never been caught cheating yet, there will be a day it could cost you a class, a grade, your job.’

The success of the activity led to the development of a comprehensive toolkit, first on VHS tape, then DVD, and in 2012 a USB drive, that provides the template for other clubs. Included are sample questions and suggestions on how to best approach school officials to incorporate the activity.

“We used to have a whole lot of papers and discs, says Stacy Plemmons, a club member and leadership consultant who expanded The Four-Way Test activity to the collegiate level for business students at Colorado State University, where Plemmons is a guest lecturer. Now anyone in the world can repeat that exercise in their local school by following the tips on the thumb drive, which costs $30 and can be purchased at (Search for 4-way program.) The vendor, Russell-Hampton Co., does not profit from the sale, and Fort Collins Rotarians view the media as a way to spread the word rather than raise funds.

Retired principal Sandy Bickel notes the activity’s additional benefit of introducing young people to the concept of service, when they see business leaders spending time and showing their care. “It was eye-opening for them, says Bickel, who adds that the coins with the test given to students have become enduring keepsakes, as well as reminders of good citizenship. “Afterward, I’d hear kids in the lunchroom saying, ‘That’s not very true, that’s not very kind,’ a variation on the test. They got the concept. Pretty simple but powerful.

–Brad Webber

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