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A Teaching Philosophy: Character Is Important, Too

Jordan Catapano

 

In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson states, “An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second.” In many of Jefferson’s compositions – as well as in a multitude of other American founders’ – character is highly esteemed and often given preeminence over pure knowledge.

The role of public education in developing students’ characters has varied over the centuries, but it has recently risen to precedence again as many realize that to give true shape to an individual, one’s teaching philosophy must address students’ hearts as much as their heads.

While we teach students the essentials for math, science, literature, writing, history, language, physical education, and so on, the question persists: “What do they do with that knowledge?”

Knowledge alone, many would argue, is not enough to ensure the well-being of our next generation. In fact, one of the six goals in the Department of Education’s strategic plan is to “promote strong character and citizenship among our nation's youth.” Even before this, the US Congress authorized the Partnerships in Character Education Program in 1994, which was extended via the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The government has recognized the need to promote solid virtues amongst its citizenry, and legislation – like the 2001 Student Citizen Act in North Carolina – mandates that students are taught more than simply knowledge in school.

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So how do we train students to have not just knowledge, but to make the world a better place? How do we, through our teaching philosophy, instill in them a virtuous character, to speak and act on behalf of good?

There is no uniform way that schools have approached the question of how to instill character values, but there is no doubt that experts have identified character education as the core, underlying ingredient to successful mentalities and behaviors.

Jessica Lahey from The Atlantic cites Paul Tough and Michele Borba, who have both written about the centrality of character to success. There’s no general consensus on which morals to inculcate (honesty, perseverance, temperance, self-control, modesty, kindness, sharing, courage, ambition, empathy, and so on) and no agreement on how to teach it (worksheets, discussions, assemblies, role modeling, positive reinforcement, curriculum and assessment, and so on). But, like in the case of North Carolina’s law, local communities are often given large proprietorship over what character values are included.

The difficulties in defining what and how to teach character are indicative of the facts that there’s no single way to define “character” and there’s no reason to conclude character is deficient in most students. Still, schools persist in including a variety of character programs. If your school has a particular character focus or partners with a character education program, definitely utilize this! Here are some other ideas on how to easily yet powerfully include character education within your regular teaching:

  • Role Model. Students learn more from the adults in their lives than the books in their lives, and they are studious observers what grownups do. Freely tell stories about your own moral decisions and consistently model the type of characteristics you’d like your students to emulate.
  • Provocative Questions and Thinking. Students love to be challenged on who they are and what they stand for. Ask them moral questions that have no easy answers, and design activities to have them hash through what is right and wrong.
  • Real-Life Connections. Education has little relevance until it becomes real. Can you find situations in the newspaper or community that pertain to character issues you’ve discussed in class? Better yet, is there something occurring right on your campus that can be exemplified as a character situation?
  • Character and Person Analysis. Examine the individuals your students encounter in literature and history, and ask the children what character traits they believe individuals demonstrate or lack.
  • Partner with Parents. When issues discussed at school are echoed at home, students begin to truly see what’s important. Have a two-way dialogue with parents about each of your character education objectives and cooperatively reinforce them.
  • Reward and Reinforce Positives. Call attention to students when they exemplify the character traits you want reinforced. Reward them with positive attention, praise, certificates or prizes, or anything else that will encourage them and others to behave that way too.

Without completely altering or stretching your curriculum, see if you can find ways to bring in these character-focused ideas into the context of your regular teaching and discussion. One danger that some, like UCLA research professor Mike Rose, identify regarding character education is the fear that our assessment-obsessed culture will too strictly label, define, and measure character standards. Or, on the opposite end, it will relegate character skills as something entirely different from cognitive skills and isolate the two.

However you look at it, you are an adult playing an extraordinary role in the young lives of students. As you make their minds stronger, consider how you can – like Jefferson insists – contribute to that “first blessing” of an honest heart, too.

What ways do you incorporate character education into your classroom and school? Do you believe character education is important to include? I’d love for you to share your perspectives in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.