The Benefits of Character Education

What I learned from teaching at a "core virtues" school

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Jessica Lahey

When I signed on to teach English at a core virtues school, I had no idea what I was in for. I nodded and smiled in my interview when the Headmaster explained the virtues curriculum, and I parried back with everything I thought she wanted to hear; how I could infuse my lessons on To Kill a Mockingbird with discussions about empathy and courage. I may have even quoted Atticus' line about walking around in someone else's skin. I figured I could tack on some of that quaint "virtue" stuff before getting to the real meat of the lesson, the academic stuff.

And for the first year I taught at Crossroads Academy, that's pretty much what I did. I made some empty gesticulations toward the core virtues bulletin board in my classroom and made some token mentions of fortitude at obvious moments in our reading of The Illiad and The Aeneid. I was teaching literature, but I certainly wasn't doing Aristotle proud.

I mean come on. Character education? Core virtues? I teach English, not Sunday school, and besides, I teach middle school. If I were to walk into my eighth grade English class and wax rhapsodic about prudence and temperance, those kids would eat me alive. It's hard enough to keep the attention of a classroom full of middle school students without coming on like an 18th-century schoolmarm.

Somewhere along the way, someone must have started dosing me with the character education Kool-Aid, because five years in, I have come to understand what real character education looks like and what it can do for children. I can't imagine teaching in a school that does not have a hard-core commitment to character education, because I've seen what that education can mean to a child's emotional, moral, and intellectual development. Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work. From a practical perspective, it's simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside - especially when they would rather be playing outside.

American schools used to focus on character education and civic virtue. The founders of this country, including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin wrote about the importance of character education in maintaining the new republic. Those founders would likely be horrified by the loss of this goal, as they all cite character education as the way to create an educated and virtuous citizenry. As Gallup polls show that over ninety percent of American adults support the teaching of honesty, democracy, acceptance of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds, patriotism, caring for friends and family members, moral courage, and the Golden Rule in public schools, it seems odd that this facet of American education has disappeared from public debate over curriculum and academic content. The core virtues -- prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice -- make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus. The curriculum we use, designed by Mary Beth Klee, is a non-sectarian education in intellectual, moral, and civic virtues through literature, and can be used in conjunction with any academic curriculum.

As the core virtues program uses examples to literature in order to illustrate character, I choose my texts accordingly. In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles' impulsive rages, King Ozymandias' petulant demand that we "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair," Macbeth's bloody, "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other."

This week, I gained a fantastic teaching assistant who has raised my character education skills to the next level, a wise teacher who has illustrated the importance of temperance far better than I -- or Achilles or Macbeth -- ever could.

A Mallard duck (Mom Mallard to our students) took up residence on our campus this week. Mallards, or anas platyrhynchos, are also known as "dabbling ducks," and this particular duck has apparently been dabbling in Aristotelian philosophy, because she's presented our students with a real-life lesson in the core virtue of temperance.

Her nest, made from feathers she's plucked off her own breast and filled with ten eggs, lies about eighteen inches from the entryway to our main building, a path our students take in out of school at least six times a day. Mom Mallard doesn't seem too worried about our students' feet...as long as they keep moving. However, the second those feet stop and one of the children pauses to take a good, long, look, she quacks angrily and abandons her nest. Her first day in residence, she spent more time off the eggs than she did on them, and we realized we were going to have to find a way to teach our students some self-control.

It just so happens that this month's virtue is temperance; stopping to think about our actions before we enact them, giving the best of ourselves, and saying "no" to our weaknesses. The middle school students use the term "temperance," and the lower school kids use the term self-control, but tomāto, tomăto, it's all the same idea.

In Stanford's famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it's the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

Character education is not old-fashioned, and it's not about bringing religion in to the classroom. Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them. Character is the "X factor" that experts in parenting and education have deemed integral to success, both in school and in life. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, calls that character-based X factor "grit," while educational consultant Dr. Michele Borba calls it "moral intelligence."

When I asked parenting expert Borba to explain why she thinks character education is so overlooked as a vital part of children's success, she wrote, "That's what parents don't seem to get, the hidden values of character traits for success. They see character education as fluff, because that's often how it's taught -- posters and worksheets. Character education needs to be relevant. It needs to be woven in curriculum, not tacked on. We are such a trophy-, SAT-obsessed society, but if parents would recognize the value beyond the humanness, civility and ethics, they might get it."

Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days. If everyone, even the youngest, most impulsive kindergarteners, can learn to exercise self-control, we will all benefit.

Next week, Mom Mallard will catch a bit of a break from our students, because they will be confined to their classrooms for a week of standardized testing. Our character education curriculum may not show up as an increase in this year's test scores -- but then again, it could: self-control, after all, is exactly what's needed to put off a video game or a TV show for another 20 minutes to finish reading or studying. Though temperance isn't easily measured with number two pencils and bubble forms, it has the capacity to foster and reinforce the skills those bubble forms do test.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English teacher. She writes the bi-weekly New York Times column The Parent-Teacher Conference, is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure.

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