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The importance of character education

New York Teacher

Reflecting back on my years as an educator, I would be remiss if I did not celebrate the small victories: the student who found the courage to stand up for herself, the struggling reader who took a leap and read aloud to our class, the reluctant writer who surprised me with four pages of research about sharks.

These victories took bravery and resilience. There is no doubt in my mind that these experiences have an impact on students in ways that support progress and produce independent learners. But the day-to-day demands of school and life can lead students to moments of self-doubt and poor judgment that can detract from learning when left unaddressed.

In other words, there is a profound connection between developing good character and achieving academically. For this reason, our committee of educators launched a character education program to highlight skills that might promote good character in our students.

Our character education motto is “Be true to yourself.” We explain to our students that when you are true to yourself, you accept yourself and others for who they are and you work as part of a team to bring out the best in one another. Our students are encouraged to express themselves and work hard to achieve their goals by trying their best and making better choices when the opportunity arises.

After extensive collaborative research, our team selected the following 10 character traits upon which the faculty would focus: self-awareness, respect, empathy, honesty, responsibility, teamwork, flexibility, perseverance, courage and compassion.

We now have a series of grade-specific lessons so all teachers can address the 10 character traits, one for each month of the school year. Teachers have color-coded discussion cards with prompts for whole class and small group discussions. Posters designed by students are hung throughout the school each month to highlight the character trait of the month. A bulletin board with content created by students in the main hallway reminds our school community that we’re always working to become the best version of ourselves. Students deliver announcements over the intercom to kick off each month.

And all classrooms have a character education library, complete with carefully selected age-appropriate picture and chapter books to be read aloud each month and used as discussion starters. Stories from authors such as R.J. Palacio, Kevin Henkes, Patricia Polacco and Kate DiCamillo among many others have set the stage for rich discussions about such topics as the importance of choosing kindness, standing up to bullies and taking responsibility for ourselves and for others to achieve goals and make the world a better place.

Staff members, parents and students are introduced to these traits via our school website. The online access serves as a home-school connection with discussion questions, activities and recommended readings for each grade.

In September, for example, students will explore what makes them unique and what they have in common with their classmates. We ask our parents to “make time to talk, take time to listen” to their children’s answers to questions like, “What would you like to get better at this year? What makes you a good friend?” Parents can start a journal with their child and read books like “I Like Me” by Nancy Carlson and “Incredible You!: 10 Ways to Let Your Greatness Shine Through” by Wayne Dyer.

In a recent community meeting, I asked my 3rd-graders what they think it means to persevere. Their answers included “If you’re losing, keep playing,” “When you fail, fix it” and “Sometimes obstacles are out of our control, but we keep going.”

Outside my classroom door is a poster that students made during the first week of school. It reads: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m Possible.’” — Audrey Hepburn.

While the times in which we live can leave us feeling confused by so many varying perspectives on right and wrong, I am comforted by our students’ eagerness to live up to their full potential. Through our monthly lessons in character education, students continue to thrive when faced with academic, behavioral and personal challenges.

Though they experience inevitable peaks and valleys, the overall outcome is clear: Our students benefit from understanding the value of the overarching principles that our schoolwide program provides. They try, they commit and they take pride in themselves.

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