I just finished reading Brain on Fire, a powerful memoir of journalist Susannah Cahalan’s descent into madness. It is a gripping personal story as well as a fascinating look at the cutting edge of neuroscience. But one small story in the book really captured my heart–the story of Dr. Souhel Najjar, the doctor who was instrumental in diagnosing Cahalan’s disease. No one else had been able to figure it out. Dr. Najjar was impressive with his heartfelt and sympathetic bedside manner, but it was his backstory that touched me and explained why he had such an affection for the weak and the powerless.
Growing up in Syria, he had done poorly in school, and his parents and teachers considered him lazy. In fact, the administrators of the Catholic school he attended even told his parents that he was beyond help and suggested they pursue a trade for their son. However, his dad truly believed in the importance of education and enrolled him in the public school. There one teacher took an interest in him and praised him for his work, boosting his confidence. He completed that year with A’s, but his parents thought either he had cheated or that the school had very low standards. When they accused the teacher of such, she said, “Did you ever think you might have a smart son? I think you need to believe in him.”
Najjar eventually graduated at the top of his class in medical school and immigrated to the U.S. where he was recently named a top neurologist. Dr. Najjar said his personal story gave him a moral to apply to his own patients: never give up on any of them.
I am grateful to that one teacher who encouraged him and to all the teachers who look for the potential in every student. You never know what sort of greatness your encouragement sparks. Dr. Najjar’s philosophy is good for all of us: never give up on any of our students.
Sometimes it takes a team of teachers to make a difference. Those of us on staff at Character.org who go on school site visit evaluations often share the touching stories of students transformed. One such story came about just as one site visitor was about to leave. Wrapping up a meeting with some students, she asked, “Is there anything else anyone would like to tell me?” One student, Jose, said, “I wasn’t going to tell you this, but now I want to. This school saved my life.” He explained that he had transferred to the school after doing poorly at other schools. He hit rock bottom shortly after he arrived because his best friend got into drugs and died from an overdose. Jose became depressed and stopped coming to school. “But,” he said, “the teachers at this school kept calling and telling me to come back to school, that they missed me.” Thanks to their persistence, he eventually returned to school and did well.
I am grateful for that team of teachers who called him every day. One teacher can be powerful, but just think how much more impact you would feel if all of your teachers called when you were absent saying they missed you and encouraging you to come back.
Grateful for one, grateful for many, and grateful for all of you. As I will soon be retiring from Character.org, I must express what an honor and a blessing it has been serving in this role. It is easy for teachers and administrators to get discouraged these days with so many negative news stories about education. But these past nine years have given me hope as I have watched so many schools use the guidance of our 11 Principles framework to improve their schools into places where students thrive academically and ethically, where teachers and administrators feel job satisfaction, and where community support grows.
Thanks to all of you on the front lines of this work–our state coordinators, our evaluators, our trainers, and our advisory groups. I couldn’t do this job without you. And thanks to you and the many, many educators on their character journeys, we are seeing momentum. The country, in fact the world, is starting to recognize the importance of character.
We just completed our National Forum that set attendance records as well as records in the number of proposals to present that we received. We had a great International Summit with representatives from 14 different countries in person and more watched via the live stream. And every day we receive calls from people wanting to know about us. More than 1,000 people access our lesson plans every day. Plus, we had a record number of National Schools of Character this year, too, with 68 schools and four districts earning the designation.
The challenge, now, is how to capitalize on this momentum. In the wake of one of the most divisive elections in history, we need more character. I call on you all to use the positive momentum from our National Forum to carry forward with a call to character. Consider submitting your innovative initiatives to our Promising Practices. Use the 11 Principles to transform your school. Apply to our Schools of Character program. After this election, we could all use a little healing.
Do you have a specific, unique, and effective character education strategy or program to share with others? Apply for our Promising Practice recognition today.