Principle 4, often called the Golden Rule of the 11 Principles, functions as the heart of a school’s culture and its character-building efforts. “We are family,” is a refrain heard many times in Schools of Character because they intentionally foster bonds between staff and students, between students, and among all adults (staff, administrators, parents) at school.
Students thrive in schools where they feel connected to their teachers and to one another, both inside and outside the classroom. It is not enough for teachers to say, “We care for our students.” Schools should look for specific evidence that a bond exists, for example:
- Student and parent responses to surveys or focus groups
- Classroom observations
- Voluntary staff attendance at school events
- Teachers making one-on-one connections with their students
Just as teachers can be trained in strategies that promote a caring classroom, practices such as cooperative learning, class meetings, and cross-age groups foster student bonding with one another.
Assessing how students feel about each other, and then using that knowledge to rectify problematic areas are earmarks of a caring school.
A School of Character unites its staff and students in the intentional effort to wipe out bullying and cyberbullying by stressing acceptance and empathy, rallying its students in a vigorous bullying prevention campaign, making clear that peer cruelty in any form will not be tolerated, and training students in what to do if they witness or experience it. Providing parent workshops to recognize the signs of cyberbullying adds another dimension to the efforts.
Happy teachers make happy students so a school should recognize and value its teachers through professional communities and social activities celebrating special occasions. Parents are welcomed at school, and meaningful opportunities to volunteer and work with staff abound.
Lastly, central office administrators in Districts of Character make efforts to know each staff member personally and acknowledge contributions. The superintendent serves as the motivating communicator and liaison to the parents and the larger community.
Clara Barton Elementary
“We ARE…Clara Barton” is an affirmation that appears many times in this elementary school in New Jersey. “The teachers really care here, and it shows,” says volunteer Joel Fleisher, who has served as a reading tutor in the district for the past 13 years. In story after story, parents reveal how a Barton teacher was able to find just the right touch or words to help a child at a pivotal moment. First-grade teacher Irene Amato, who was a Barton parent before she was a teacher here, sums up the school’s special quality: “When children enter those doors, they are in a safe place, part of a family, where they can find comfort and where they can confide in us.” Speech teacher Alena Langi remarks, “I am amazed at the level of respect students show for each other and for their teachers.” Every student interviewed indicates there is no bullying. “And even if there was,” Nayla interjects, “we know what to do – take action, speak up, tell somebody.” Miles, a third grader, adds, “We could use WE messages if we see bullying. Together, we have power as witnesses who stand up to the bully.”
Sacred Hearts Academy
Sacred Hearts Academy in Hawaii has many traditions that lend it to creating a caring community. “Pohaky Buddies” for the staff, mentorship to younger students, parent teacher organization, Fright Night, circle time and cooperative learning all feed into the innate caring community. People are committed to one another in this school and to the school itself, so much so that many staff and students drive daily for extended periods of time just to be a part of this school family. They epitomize the word “Ohana,” Hawaiian for “family.”
Wylie E. Groves High School
Wylie E. Groves High School in Michigan created a Big Brother/Big Sister program which is a mentoring program for freshman as they enter high school and supports the students throughout their first year. Many stories about this caring community have roots in this program. One freshman student needed a heart transplant and could not attend school. His Big Brother mentor wanted to support him in some way so the mentor visited him in the hospital weekly. The drive to the hospital was almost an hour one way. As Homecoming approached, this mentor wanted to do something special for his mentee. He gathered 20 freshman who knew the student in the hospital and they created a Homecoming in the hospital. They took the decorations from the Groves High School Homecoming and decorated the hospital room. The assistant principal they asked to go with them shared that it was one of the most beautiful events he had attended.
Principle 4 is all about relationships. What are you doing to cultivate relationships between all school decision makers?
What opportunities can you provide for all members of the school community to develop empathy and respect for others?
How are you addressing peer mistreatment and bullying? Is it working? If not, what can you do to modify your plan to improve the results?
Research that Supports Principle 4
“Nice people engage in pro-social activities, exhibit basic concerns about fairness and inequality, and refrain from actions that would hurt others. Many of us have recognized the importance of this aspect of moral education, and devoted research and educational efforts at finding ways to optimize students’ school experiences in the form of school climate, developmental approaches to student discipline, scaffolding social problem solving, and more recently, incorporating contemplative practices for mindfulness to foster emotion regulation and interpersonal empathy. (Roeser et al., 2014)”
“There are countless ways for students to practice kindness and increase their empathy capacities. But look for real, meaningful, face-to-face type experiences. Those are the kinds of opportunities our students need to develop caring mindsets and become caring, socially responsible, good people.”
“6 Ways Children Can Spread Kindness in Schools,” by Michele Borba
Authored by Eileen Dachnowicz