By Teachers, For Teachers
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.
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.
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:
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.