Teaching character

Back in this post, I wrote about school culture, its importance, and the hard work it takes to make it a genuine and on-going part of the school. Too many schools try to get it through shortcuts, as they “build their so-called culture around character issues, with words-of-the-week aligned with positive character traits – it’s Responsibility Week!”

In a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, What If the Secret to Success is Failure?, character gets divided into two categories – moral character and performance character – and we read about one school-based character program that tries to teach the moral kind, with attention given to statements such as “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be aware of other people’s feelings and find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.” Nothing wrong with teaching kids the character traits related to those statements, but the article suggests a character education reboot, identifying character strengths that are performance-oriented – curiosity, zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, and optimism – and the teaching and measurement of them. The article shares classroom observations from New York City’s KIPP Infinity Charter School, as teachers deliver “‘dual-purpose instruction,’ the practice of deliberately working explicit talk about character strengths into every lesson.”

This is what hits home for me in this article and about this character-related work: KIPP teachers plan for and deliver lessons that teach these traits, not just hope they pop up in classroom discussion and that the discussion then rubs off on the kids. There is intentionality – plan for it in the classroom and it will happen – as too many character programs get left on the walls, literally, just posters with words or sayings that become pablum.

George Saunders

Also in that issue of the Sunday magazine was this short piece from author George Saunders, in which he wrote about two teachers important to him and this lovely paragraph:

“Now, at this distance, I can see how important and unlikely these teacherly interventions were. They were young teachers (in their mid-20s), they were making lives for themselves, they were surrounded every day by hundreds of us blustering, cynical, musk-smelling 1970s kids, resisting positive influence with all our sneering Aerosmith-­inflected might. It all could have been different for me and would have been, if not for whatever it is that makes an older person – busy person, tired person, finite person – turn toward a young person and say, in whatever way is needed: ‘Of course you can. Why not? Give it a try.'”

So, yes, there needs to be that intentionality in the classroom, as the character program gets enacted through the instructional program, and it takes a caring adult to make it all happen. An active and successful character initiative is driven by caring people; they connect with students in and out of the classroom, using the lessons that emerge in the classroom to build on moments that happen out of it, and vice versa. As this monograph called School Connectedness states, “Ensure that every student feels close to at least one supportive adult at school.”

I was lucky to have several middle and high school teachers and coaches that took an interest in my development as a person: Mr. Mungiguerra, Mr. Jacobs, Ms. Drazba, Mr. Whalen, Coach Astorino, and Mr. Pfeffer, who taught me US history and coached soccer. He connected class discussions on the Bill of Rights to what was happening in the news or in our own lives, no matter how much we rolled our eyes, and he allowed us the space in class to be playful, to question, to think, always with an emphasis on doing the right thing. The same happened during soccer practice, as we practiced the zest, grit, and self-control (see those performance qualities above) that Coach Pfeffer preached. All middle and high school students should be so lucky to have a supportive adult like him.

I got the curiosity photo from the New York Times online version of the article, which is here. The George Saunders photo came from here.

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