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.

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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