Beckys_Pic_March_2009_3_webBy Becky Sipos

The principal came to my classroom door with the bad news, “Because enrollment has declined for next year, we have to make some cuts, and since you were the last hired, that means we have to let you go.”

Devastating news, but I had heard this story before. In the early days of my teaching career, I had to change schools every two years because of moves thanks to my husband’s military career. I was always the last hired and the first to go when reductions hit. This time, though, there was a catch. The principal added, “But if you agree to sponsor the school newspaper, we can keep you because that is a protected position.”

So I agreed and then spent that summer taking journalism classes and getting certified as a journalism teacher. Teaching journalism changed my life and improved my teaching.

Here’s what I discovered:

  1. Students were more engaged both in class and outside of class.

They wanted to come after school to work in the newsroom. Their work ethic and willingness to spend time on my “homework” was amazing. Some days I had to force them to go home. Why were they so committed? Because the school newspaper was a real product with read deadlines and they wanted to do it well.

  1. Students developed teamwork and leadership skills.

In a regular class, if someone doesn’t do his or her homework, that student suffers. But in a newspaper class, if someone doesn’t meet the deadline, everyone suffers. Someone else has to figure out how to fill the news hole. Student editors had to learn how to manage staff. The more experienced staff helped the younger staff. But there was a role for everyone. We developed a caring classroom that felt more like family than school.

  1. But most of all, I was amazed at how my students’ writing improved so much more than in my English classes.

The students were more motivated to do well because their writing would be read by a real audience and not just an English teacher. And not just other students in the school. We received letters to the editor from a family in New Zealand who were moving to the area and had discovered our newspaper online. They got a letter from a music critic in New York City responding to a review a student wrote. We were frequently surprised by the reach of our paper. Our paper connected students to the world at large.

I learned many more lessons from teaching journalism and I transferred those lessons to my regular English classes as well. But as I later learned, once I discovered the pedagogy around character education, those lessons are the ones espoused in’s principle six:  “The school offers a meaningful and challenging curriculum that respects all learners, develops their character, and helps them succeed.”

Here are just a few of the key indicators of principle 6.

  1. Teachers provide all students with opportunities to interact with academic content in engaging, hands-on ways.

  2. Teachers understand and respond to students’ learning needs and cultural differences.

  3. Teachers promote thinking habits like curiosity and critical thinking.

  4. Instruction increases students’ sense of competence and emphasizes autonomy.

You can see details of this principle if you download the full 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. You can also see many examples and activities in Chapter 6 of the Sourcebook.

I sometimes think that Principle 6 should have been listed first as principle 1 because there are so many misconceptions about character education. Some think that it is just a nice-to-have add-on that they can’t undertake because they are too busy focusing on academics. They miss the point that engaging academics is an essential part of effective character education.

“When teachers bring to the fore the character dimension of their classes, they enhance the relevance of subject matter and content area skills to students’ natural interests and questions, and in the process, increase student engagement and achievement.” (principle 6)

I am always excited when I go on school site visits to evaluate potential Schools of Character and get so caught up in some classrooms that I don’t want to leave. The lessons are so interesting that I almost forget that I need to observe many more rooms in the school. Not only do the lessons engage a visitor, the students are so engaged that they often times don’t even notice that I have entered the room. These are the schools that are implementing principle 6 well.

Promoting student engagement is really important. A recent Gallup poll discovered a depressing trend. For every year that students are in school, their level of engagement goes down. In the 2013 survey, Gallup discovered that 76% of elementary school students were engaged, compared with 60% of middle school students and only 43% of high school students. 

The longer most students stay in school, the less engaged they become. What a sad commentary. With effective character education we can surely do better than that.