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Expect Good Character

By Dr. Philip Fitch Vincent, Director of the Character Development Group

Several week ago, I was fortunate to spend a morning with Noelle, the physical education teacher and the character education coordinator at Devonshire Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina. As we were discussing the school's character education efforts, she pointed out that she required all of her students to hold the door open for those walking behind them. For some of them, this was just a reminder. For other children in her class, the act of holding a door as a means of serving or helping another person was a new concept. Not only did Noelle talk to her students about the what holding the door meant to other people, she had them practice this small act of sharing in her classroom. She said that a number of teachers in her school noticed that more students were holding the door for other students and adults and asked them about it. Several students replied that they had learned to do it in physical education class. They had learned that everyone in the school should hold the door for everyone else in the school. This simple act of kindness helps them build on their civility skills. Noelle expected such behavior from all her students, discussed this expectation with them, and had them practice the act. Noelle expects as much civility and sharing from her students as she does from the adults in the building.

Marvin Berkowitz's "Third Key to School Character Education" is that schools must expect good character of all its members and that character needs to be a priority for all the members of the school community. By all its members, we clearly include the students, as well as all the adults in the school, whether they interact with students or only other adults. The expectation is for everyone.

How adults treat adults is as important a factor in school climate as how students treat students. Have you ever spoken to a colleague in the morning and been ignored, perhaps ignored many times? Have you or a team ever been responsible for an after-school in-service activity and had some of your peers chat in side conversations with others or even grade papers? This is a failure to practice, expect, and demand good character from the adults in the school. In the last column, we noted that children pay attention to both the positive and negative behaviors in adults. They also know whether good character is expected from everyone in the school.

This may be especially constraining to some adults in a building. For example, we expect all members of the school community to cease their cursing. Does this also apply to the coaches on the practice and game fields? It is so easy to demand this of the students, but what do we demand of ourselves? Perhaps we might start with some basic standards of civility that all adults and children can model and practice in their school. Some basic standards might be:

  • Speak when spoken to. When someone says, "Good morning," return the greeting.
  • Listen while others are talking. Make efforts not to interrupt others while others are talking.
  • In faculty meetings, as well as our classroom time, treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Listen and be civil. If topics being discussed spark differences of opinion, then disagree without becoming disagreeable.
  • Model and use polite words such as: please, thank you, and excuse me.

From these expectations we build other practices of good character. We help others when they need help. We take turns and offer to let other go in front of us. We thank others for their acts of generosity.

I especially like for us to take the time to thank others for acts above and beyond the basics requirements of civility. Many elementary schools in Tampa, Florida, have decided to do just this. They developed a "complimentary tree." This wonderful tree and its limbs are attached to a wall behind the main office, in the school's entrance area, or even in a library. Most are cut-out paper, but some schools are using real trees! Available near the tree are construction-paper "leaves." The adults in the building thank other adults for acts of kindness, caring, responsibility, and service by describing the acts on a leaf and posting it on the tree.

A teacher might thank a cafeteria worker for taking a little extra time with one of the students. A principal might thank a teacher for spending some extra time assisting a parent who wants to help her child with homework. A teacher assistant may thank a custodian for spending a little extra time putting a "spit shine" on the classroom floor. In these schools, character is expected of everyone in the school, but it is also recognized and celebrated. Once a month, in many of the schools, all the adults in the school assemble after school for cake, ice cream and a passing out of the leaves. It is a time to applaud the character of others in the building, as well as adding validity to the old maxim, "If we do not feed the teachers, custodians, counselors, bus drivers, administrators, teacher assistants, and cafeteria workers, they will eat the children!" Some schools have now established complimentary trees for the students as well as the parents. On these trees, students can thank other students or school adults. All the adults in the building, whether they are staff or volunteers, are encouraged to acknowledge the civility of students within the school.

In conclusion, the practice of good character must be expected of everyone in the school. It must not be an extra, an add-on, a second thought, or a side bar. It must not be less important than academics. It must be the guiding light to create the type of climate that will allow our academics, arts, and athletics to shine. Expecting anything else less from the adults and children in a school demeans our school community.


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