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How does a school shape character?

September 18, 2018
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Character traits signs on a wall with descriptions of each trait

The time had come, my work at our school was done; I could feel it with every fiber of my being. Not because I didn’t like my school anymore, but because I’d grown to love them so much. And when you love something that deeply, you know when it’s time to let go and give someone else the opportunity to carry the torch. I’d learned that as I worked with intention to shape my students’ character for the quarter of a century as a character educator in that district. I say with intention, because every day with our every interaction we are shaping our students’ character whether we do it purposefully or not. And do we really want to leave something that critical to chance?

Through our work with the Josephson Institute of Ethics after our district adopted the Six Pillars of Character as our framework, I stumbled upon a group called The Character Education Partnership (now Character.org ) when their National Forum was held in Houston. That’s when my journey got a lot more purposeful, because that’s when I discovered the road map, otherwise known as The 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. My map is now, well, tattered and torn, from so much use during all of those years; just this week I took it with me to a neighboring district to help them start their crusade down Character Road.

Here now, the first five of the 11 Principles (source: Character.org) and how we utilized them to weave our core ethical values into our school’s fabric.

  1. The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character. It was back in 1987, when a group of 120 citizens in our town gathered to decide upon the core values that we wanted to see in the learners we were graduating and sending off to college and into the work force. In the Fall of 2001, our Board of Education adopted the Six Pillars of Character framework to support our efforts; in 2016, the district reaffirmed our commitment to cultivate character in all learners as we work to dynamically shape the hearts and minds of our future. When a community collaborates to unleash character education, it’ll equip ‘value-able’ citizens, empowered to use that strong foundation for good. Click {here} to be reminded about some of the benefits that these performance values provide.
  2. The school defines “character” comprehensively to include thinking, feeling, and doing. We quickly realized that simply saying, “Let’s remember to make good character choices.” wasn’t enough because we were missing some prerequisites to the end game. The three domains of character education include the cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Students need to be taught the values so that they understand them before embracing them as an integral part of their daily habits and routines. Once they feel the values, students can use them to meaningfully engage in good character choices and ultimately stronger, healthier relationships. When they need correction, students can reflect back through the core ethical values and think about which value they could use some support practicing. Head, heart, hands.
  3. The school uses a comprehensive, intentional, and proactive approach to character development. There’s that word intentional again. Helen Keller said it so eloquently when she said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” (Source: Brainy Quote) Just like we develop our physical strength with hard work, by sweating through exercise routinely, optimal character strength needs daily practice as well. It’s not going to happen because we’ve agreed upon the values we’d like to sharpen in our students. It’s not going to happen because we put some cool posters or murals on the wall. It’s not going to happen because we bring in a motivational speaker for a power assembly. It’s going to happen when we intentionally teach the values and then give students and staff plenty of opportunity to practice. Because we all need practice, lots and lots of practice. Each and every moment of each and every day. Proactively. On purpose.
  4. The school creates a caring community. Say your students, staff, and stakeholders know and have embraced your community’s core values; now what? How do you help your school family walk the talk as you collaborate to create a caring community? Do people feel welcomed into your building? Do your students want to be there? Is the staff connected collegially? How can you tell? If the answer is no, how can you change that? How can you evaluate caring? Are your families attending and engaged in the events and outings that you’ve planned for them? Are you positively promoting the wonderful things happening in your classrooms? How? Are you partnering with parents and stakeholders to create a bridge from the school out into the community? Are you celebrating diversity in a climate where everybody belongs, where everybody matters, where everybody is a leader? Do stakeholders know that they your staff loves to teach and teaches to love? How? Use the answers to these questions to help you create that culture of character and climate of caring.
  5. The school provides students with opportunities for moral action. Schools of Character are raising students who actively look for ways to put their values into action. Students may not decide on their own to help stock the shelves at your local pantry, but when the school holds a food drive, it helps to put it on their hearts to help their neighbors in need. Encourage them to look for needs wherever they go. Turn that service project into a service-learning project and you’ll have a delicious recipe for success. Our strongest example of this is our school’s Knit-For-Service club, which is about to begin its sixteenth year. In partnership with our local knitting guild, volunteers teach students how to knit so that they can make hats, scarves, and blankets for people in need. They research who needs their help and vote on where their donations will go at the end of each school year. Which projects have sparked moral action in your students?

Need more information on the other Principles and more intriguing integration ideas for your character building? Each year, Character.org hosts the National Forum on Character Education in Washington D.C.; it’s not too late for you to sign up for this year’s event.


By Barbara Gruener