How can educators teach character?
It is my view that character is something we demonstrate and develop over time. There are lessons we can teach, books we can share, conversations we can host, but none of it will matter if we are not living exemplars of what we say and ask our students to live out. Children, even the youngest of our students, recognize the disconnect between our words and our actions. In short, integrity is not something we can fake. Our actions and behaviors are the more effective teacher in matters of character. Children learn from our behaviors what a promise means. They learn from our actions and our reactions what it means to be kind and truthful and honorable. They learn from our consistent ways of being what it means to be trustworthy, considerate, empathetic and caring. Our ways of being are, in my view the most powerful instruction we can devise when it comes to developing character.
Developing character is an incremental process, one that takes time, consistency, modeling and conversation. I believe our task begins with living what we expect. We model civil conversations in which all participants listen and respond, initiate and scaffold. We behave with our colleagues in ways we would expect our students to behave for I do not believe we can lead the development of anything in others that is not a basic component of our own belief and behavior.
In my work I am encouraging teachers across the country to drop the traditional list of rules; the "you can't..." statements and the "if you do..." threats we find posted on the first day of school. I'm suggesting that in place of those lists we focus on a guiding principle such as this: "In all things be kind and truthful; cause no intentional harm." This statement focuses on what we expect, what we hold as common behavior in a civil society. It doesn't suggest the behaviors we want to avoid. It doesn't imply a punitive system to coerce the behaviors desired by authority. Character is not compliance out of fear, it is a manifestation of core beliefs. Character is how we live every day in every circumstance. The task, then, is to help students develop deeply held beliefs about the value of human dignity, respect for oneself and for others.