By Pam Clifton
A group of kindergarteners lines up on the playground when the bell sounds to end their after-lunch recess. One student pushes another student out of the way so he can be first in line.
Inside, a second-grader smears her chocolate pudding across the cafeteria table instead of eating it.
In a classroom, a fifth-grade student becomes frustrated with his teacher and knocks his books onto the floor with a loud thud and disrupts the class lesson. When confronted about her incomplete homework, a high school student tells the teacher to “mind her own business” and then refuses to work for the remainder of class. Teachers fight this battle of ill-mannered students across all grades. In an already full school day, educators struggle to fit one more thing into their class curriculum. But adding character education into lesson plans or as a school focus does not need to be a daunting task. A building or district-wide focus is often the best answer for everyone. Instead of adding separate lessons, character education can be built into daily activities to create a community of caring individuals as part of a whole-school approach.
What is character education? The term is used to describe the process of teaching children in a way to help develop virtues and positive attributes. When adults and children work together to establish a character education process, they essentially create a positive school-wide culture in which important traits become priority: respect, responsibility, citizenship, compassion, trustworthiness and more.
When adults model these traits, students are positively influenced. They learn that their actions directly influence their character.
The benefits of character education are far reaching and long lasting. Teaching ethics helps students become better decision-makers and develop vital social, emotional and even academic competencies.
Teachers and staff at the Farmington R-7 School District have experienced great success with character education since they implemented it about eight years ago. It actually began when Todd McKinney was coaching football for the district and was encouraged by a book by Jeffrey Marx, “Season of Life.” McKinney said they wanted to help the boys on his team on the road to manhood. They developed a character ed playbook and brought in guest speakers who would address that. He said they initially saw a huge decrease in negative behavior, less fighting and less insubordination. Now, the high school teachers are seeing a change, as incoming students are far more respectful. McKinney was hired at FMS as assistant principal and became district director of character education, largely because of this focus.
“I was blessed to have teachers at the middle school who were equally committed to the cause,” he said, “and a lot of really good people in the district are passionate about this. I’m simply a guy who supports them in their ideas for character education.”
Character education grew district-wide with designated leaders, committees and goals in every building. The designated leaders are Leadership Academy of Character Education (LACE) graduates through University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“The quantifiable results can be seen in discipline data, service learning participation and results, etc.,” said McKinney. He explained that there must be a consistent focus on teaching good morals and values to have a “lasting impact on kids, many times unseen until later.”
In 2018, FMS became one of more than 70 schools nationwide to earn designation as a National School of Character. They were recognized by Character.org as a school demonstrating the use of character development to drive a positive impact on academics, student behavior and school climate. They completed a lengthy application process and onsite evaluations to earn this designation.
Students, teachers, administrators, staff and community members are all stakeholders in the character education process. A board consisting of people from each of these groups is the voice to guide the direction of the stakeholders in following the school’s core values titled “The Eight Pillars of Integrity.” These values were chosen to help students develop strong character. The board acts as a group of advisors for all related initiatives and evaluation of data collected.
Teacher Scott Doty has been employed at Farmington for 10 years and currently works as a seventh-grade social studies and English Language Arts teacher at the middle school. Doty said the school is not following a character education program. “In our opinion that approach [character education program] is not sustainable.” Instead, they utilize the principles of character education which are a framework, not a program.
He said the 11 principles of effective character education are the framework and describe character education as “… the intentional effort to develop in young people core ethical and performance values that are widely affirmed across all cultures. To be effective, character education must include all stakeholders in a school community and must permeate school climate and curriculum.”
The committee collects data from all stakeholders frequently so everyone has a voice. They have seen a decrease in the number of students receiving in-school and out-of-school suspensions as well as a decrease in the number of failing grades by students.
“I realize that type of data is what is touted so I must say we have seen an increase in the number of stakeholders who report an increased feeling of welcoming, belonging and acceptance,” said Doty.
He feels true character education is organic and is a “living and breathing thing. There are always improvements and changes to make.”
FMS staff did not anticipate how character education would become so much a part of their culture. “We were surprised how our skepticism was proven wrong.”
They continue to utilize the 11 principles to improve current initiatives and foster new ones.
Amanda Sullivan, a fourth-grade teacher at Washington-Franklin Elementary at Farmington R-7, said character education was started at her school because they wanted it to become the teaching method which would foster the development of honest and responsible individuals by teaching their students about good values and morals people should have. They wanted to teach students how being honest, responsible, caring and other important traits contribute to being an upstanding community member.
The school’s motto is “committed to creating connected, capable and confident learners.”
The need for character education was to have a sustained process of teaching, being role models of good character and consistent by practicing good character traits. The process at this school started with direction of instruction and modeling of character traits, followed by vocabulary.
Students learned what it means to SHARE (service, honesty, accountability, responsibility, empathy). They learned about positivity in language and in school in the classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, recess, bus and more. Students are also part of family time, where each student in the school has a family group consisting of first through fourth-grade students and one adult. Families meet to talk, encourage, support and build confidence in one another.
“This gives students the opportunity to have a connection with an adult in the school that isn’t their teacher, and they make connections with other students throughout the school,” Sullivan explained.
They also have a Kind Kids Club and Character Council where school leadership and community involvement and service learning activities are priority.
The group, which includes community members, meets quarterly to regularly review the character education practices at the primary school.
“This program is always evolving and changing,” said Sullivan.
Their next step is to earn recognition as a School of Character.
Central R-3 Middle School in Park Hills, staff also took a proactive approach to building character with their students this past year after Greg Noble, assistant principal, consulted with Farmington R-7’s McKinney.
They, too, implemented the Pillars of Character program which centers around five main facets of character.
Faculty, students and parents completed a survey to rank character traits by ones they felt were most important. The results, or pillar topics, were unanimous among all three groups: respect, responsibility, honesty, integrity and kindness.
A character education committee has been guiding the process since then. Last year, students participated in activities and discussions using ClipShout weekly during eighth hour on Monday. They focused on each pillar topic for four to five weeks. Staff also used their own concepts to supplement the videos while students used a “head, heart, hands” approach to learn the character traits. This meant students learned not only the intellectual knowledge of the trait but also how to internalize it to understand what the words and actions truly meant.
Noble and his staff wanted students to make these traits a part of who they are because they knew kids would not act with integrity if they did not understand what it meant.
During a lesson on kindness, a special guest visited with students to talk about the community’s kindness toward him and his family during his daughter’s bout with terminal cancer. Afterward, students participated in a supplies and toy drive for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Friends of Kids with Cancer. Noble said they had seen students make a concerted effort to put these traits into practice. Students also made suggestions about ways to use them at school.
“We are early in the program, but we are already seeing a positive impact on school culture,” said Noble.
During this school year, Central Middle School staff will continue building a specific character education curriculum for all grades. They’re also adding a character banquet to the schedule for end-of-the year activities that will include a guest speaker, student recognition, and family and community involvement.
“We are working hard to continue making relevant and impactful changes that will make the program all our students need for it to be,” said Noble. “We see the necessity of teaching character traits to middle school students that will impact their lives in a number of positive ways.”
Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois County R-4. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.