The Best Life Lessons - Teaching Character

Many schools embrace some sort of character education in an effort to curtail discipline problems. The hope is for students to stop and think how they would feel in difficult situations and use that feeling as a gauge for their own behavior. The question is does it work?

The problem with most programs is they are limited in their desired influence. The best program cannot change a school's environment. The best test of character lies in the attitudes of the teaching staff. Do they embody the values and principles of empathy, kindness and respect?

This weekend I read an interesting article in the New York Times on teaching character. It seems school districts across the country are spending enormous sums of money hoping to find a program that is comprehensive but does not crowd out the academic mission of their schools.

This sounded like a contradiction to me because what could be more important than helping to shape the character of every student.

The mission of any school need not be limited to academic achievement in fact it should be to nurture the desire to learn in collaboration and cooperation with each other. If the mission focuses on the narrow goal of promoting individual achievement than it fosters the type of competing and comparing that often threaten acceptance, tolerance and synergy.

For thirteen years I supervised a disciple program in a middle school. The purpose of our program was to provide a quality environment and engage the student in a process of responsible decision-making. The hope was in this process the student would accept responsibility for their actions and choose a better positive way to solve a problem. The character component was critical.

It was successful in a limited way because it only engaged students with behavior problems. It was not proactive because it did not reach the greater number of students who helped shape and influence the environment of the school. Nor did it work to change the attitudes of the teaching staff. Despite devoted time and energy there was no paradigm shift in the way we looked at solving problems. What we needed was a critical examination of how each one of us hoped to embody the principles of character.

As a staff we were an older version of our middle school population. There was gossip, there were cliques, there was bullying, there was jealousy, there were petty grievances and wasted energy on small things. I have no doubt that students were aware of these adult relationships and viewed them as a template for their own behavior.

The best way to teach character is to show love and kindness. The environment that has a high regard for individual differences, for forgiveness and acceptance is one that allows everything to flourish. Think of it in terms of providing rich compost that needs little to protect it during times of stress. The environment itself is the protection.

This connected integrated view holds true for every system in the universe. Our own bodies operate so smoothly that we can forget about them until some failure captures our attention.

Schools can become the best place to be if the adults insist on nurturing an environment of love of kindness. It will be apparent to every child that character is not just a buzzword, or an inspirational message, it is a practice built on the right foundation.