The Importance of Character in Schools

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the value and role of character education in schools on LinkedIn. Read more here and below. If my thoughts resonate with your experiences, feel free to share it through LinkedIn.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, writer Anna North asked if character, or what she calls “personality,” should be taught in schools. She sets up character and academics as an either-or proposition, but I know from 20 years of working in K-12 education that it’s not. At KIPP, the public charter school network that I co-founded with Dave Levin in 1994, character-building and academics go hand-in-hand. We believe our students need both rigorous academics and a strong character foundation to excel in college and in life.

Character has been woven into the fabric of the KIPP model from the very beginning – we observed and learned from master teachers that character is part of any successful classroom. KIPP educators integrate character strengths like grit, self-control, and social intelligence into the classroom and the entire school culture as tools to empower students to succeed. These strengths have been identified by leading psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania as key indicators of student success and happiness.

We’ve seen that parents want their students to learn more than just academic knowledge in school. The typical parent of a KIPP student spends a great deal of time outside of the classroom working for the betterment of his/her children, helping them grow the character strengths they need to succeed in life. As educators, we believe that this character development work should be woven seamlessly into the classroom and parents and teachers are partners in this effort. While KIPP’s character development is grounded in psychology, this work is not a psychology experiment. It’s geared toward real life. We firmly believe that empowering students not to give up and to work with a team will prepare them for college, life, and a choice-driven future; a future that includes college and preparation for a working world that values strong character and judgment.

We’ve heard the argument that KIPP’s approach to teaching character is devoid of any morality. To that, I say: our motto is “Work Hard. Be Nice,” not “Work Hard. Work Harder.” Each day I see teachers and students working together, displaying and developing these character strengths as they work to better understand them both in and out of the classroom. Ms. North’s column quotes KIPP NYC teacher Leyla Bravo-Willey, who recently wrote in a New Republic op-ed, “When I talk to my students about character, it’s not abstract. It’s personal…I’m always conscious that I’m leading by example, showing them what grit and optimism look like in real life.” Leyla, like many teachers across the KIPP network, is modeling strong character for students and leading by example. As James Baldwin so poignantly said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them.”

Preparing our students to climb the mountain to and through college to have options in life is our main goal, but it’s not our only goal. Many of our students are not only climbing the mountain to and through college, but they’re reaching back down as well to help future generations of students. We’re seeing that most vividly in KIPP classrooms, where our alumni are coming back to teach the next generation. At KIPP in Houston, where our work all started and we have students old enough to have completed college nearly a decade ago, 5 percent of our teachers are former KIPP students.

When I think of how we hope KIPP’s character development plays out in the future, I think of KIPP Houston first grade teacher Diana Castillo. Diana and her family emigrated from Mexico when she was just three years-old and struggled to make ends meet for years. Flash forward to 1997. I was in Houston, recruiting students and parents to grow the first KIPP school in the country. Diana’s door was one of the ones on which I knocked. I promised Diana and her family that she could make it to and through college by working hard and being nice. Diana took me up on that promise, joining us as a student at KIPP, and then working her way to Cornell University before joining Teach for America. Today, she teaches first grade at KIPP Dream Prep in Houston.

Last year, she was awarded a Kinder Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award in recognition of her outstanding work as a teacher. She not only models the KIPP character strengths of grit, zest, optimism, and gratitude, but she is working to help a new generation of KIPPsters develop those same strengths so that they can follow in her footsteps to college and the world beyond.

Character development is not a novelty or a trend—it’s a real-world need that has always been in high demand. Students demand it, parents demand it, and the workplace demands it. Asking whether character should be taught in school or at home sets up a false choice. We need to think about how schools and families can work together to ensure young people have resiliency to reach their potential in their chosen careers with a generosity of spirit to help build a better tomorrow.

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