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Character Education: Stop Teaching Subjects and Start Teaching People

Mary L. Dennis

width=266If you’re a teacher, you are usng character education. You teach by personal example, in class discussions, in the behavior you do or do not tolerate, and through student evaluation. On a typical school day, there are dozens of opportunities to integrate character education into your curriculum. You can underscore character education consistently without specifically teaching a unit on it.

The desirable traits most often listed by character education experts are:

• Trustworthiness and honesty

• Respect for others

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• Responsibility

• Fairness

• Caring


• Perseverance

• Courage

• Cooperation

• Self-discipline

Students are citizens of their classrooms, their schools, their communities, their country, and the world, but their “society” is largely their school. If you consistently enforce classroom and school rules in a fair but firm way, you convey messages about citizenship and about fairness. Society’s rules and laws should be followed, and it isn’t fair to let one person get by with something if someone else can’t.

If one of your classroom rules is that everyone has something to offer, you reinforce respect for others, caring and fairness every time you engage students in discussion. A school-wide “no bullying” policy helps to develop the same traits, and also takes pressure off students who are afraid not to go along with a bully, making it easier for them to implement self-discipline and building self-esteem.

School-wide community service projects—such as raising funds for the local humane society—allow students to experience the satisfaction of hands-on good citizenship as well as the rewards of perseverance, caring, and cooperation.

Fostering intellectual curiosity through critical thinking and research activities sends the message that one has the responsibility to question, to seek information, and to make decisions. Seeking out information requires perseverance. Making well-considered decisions relates directly to other traits, such as the courage and self-discipline not to go along with something just because “everyone’s doing it.”

History, literature and current events provide great springboards for discussions about many of the character traits on the list. For example, you might have students give examples and check off the traits To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch represents. Examine Harriet Tubman’s perseverance, self-respect, courage, and caring, or discuss the traits students believe are important in a president, mayor, or sheriff. Whether you are studying fiction, history, or current events, evaluate the decisions people make and consider the outcomes of other possible choices. Discuss how various character traits played into the decisions.

Tests, quizzes, and any other work done individually offer opportunities to reinforce self-respect, responsibility, and honesty. On these occasions, repeat the simple reminder that it is students’ responsibility to do their own work without looking at someone else’s. Let them know you’re watching and that you will not tolerate cheating.

Conversely, group activities give students opportunities to interact and test their respect for others, the ability to be fair and caring, the self-discipline needed to stay on task when there is a temptation to chat, and the capacity for cooperation and teamwork.

Don’t forget positive feedback. Let students know when they’ve exhibited positive character traits. Explain what behaviors showed you that they were especially caring, courageous, self-disciplined or responsible.

It’s obvious that developing desirable character traits in future adults is for the greater good of all. Of more immediate importance, though, is that students who develop these traits feel more satisfied and relaxed about their lives, more confident, and ultimately more successful.

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