By Becky Sipos, President & CEO
For me, the New Year always brings an attitude of fresh start along with a reflection on accomplishments or disappointments of the past year. Pick up any magazine and you can see the imperatives: Lose 10 pounds in two weeks, plan more nutritious meals, get fit in only 15-minutes a day and so on.
For schools, the imperatives usually revolve around better classroom management, helping low-achieving students to be more successful, getting all faculty onboard with positive school goals, or meeting state and federal testing requirements.
The trouble with most New Year’s resolutions is that the adopters are often looking for a quick fix. Unfortunately, neither losing weight nor transforming school culture is a quick fix, but both are worthy goals.
For educators looking to change their school culture, Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education offers guidelines for an effective program. But teachers sometimes think they are designed to be a step-by-step recipe beginning with #1 and progressing through step #11. But really, you can start with any principle. If you are looking to jump start your character education journey this year, here are four suggestions for ways to get started now.
Option 1: Start with the adult culture
Amy Johnston, former principal of Francis Howell Middle School and now one of Character.org’s most effective trainers, recommends that schools start with Principle 4.4: “The school makes it a high priority to foster caring attachments among adults within the school community.”
Amy says that is where it all begins. “If the adults don’t have the guts to look in the mirror and share what they see with those they work with, they will never feel safe enough to take risks and go out on a limb for kids. We have to be authentic, vulnerable and brave to do this work because if we aren’t, we hide behind curriculum, policies and bad habits and never really change anything.”
She got advice from Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, endowed professor of character education at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Marvin encouraged her to spend a year getting to know the staff, allowing them to get to know one another and giving all the opportunity to “soak in the character education tub together and decide what it could mean for us.”
They did this through lots of ways: personality surveys, conversations about personal core values, staff retreats, ice breakers and games at faculty meetings, plan time meetings instead of after school, summer workshops, book studies, encouraging, modeling and allowing risk, staff parties with all family invited, taking time to talk about who you are and why and encouraging a climate where it is safe to be vulnerable.
“Best advice I ever got!” Amy said. “We are all insecure on some level and it is hard to share ideas, ask for advice, admit failure and celebrate success with people you don’t trust, but all of those things are essential to a healthy school climate. When you take the time to build a healthy adult culture, you lay the foundation for a healthy school culture where great things happen!”
Option 2: Start with the data
Eileen Dachnowicz, former academic supervisor at Cranford High School, a National School of Character, and now a Character.org trainer, site evaluator and writer of our Schools of Character magazine, agrees that building a harmonious culture between team members is important. However, some schools already have a basic level of harmony and for them she recommends that they start with Principle 11: “The school regularly assesses its culture and climate, the functioning of its staff as character educators, and the extent to which its students manifest good character.”
Eileen said, “Too many schools reach for packaged programs or initiatives used by other schools before using data to figure out precisely what is working or not working in their school. A sense of direction is essential for establishing a program with a sustained vision. Therefore, a school should look at academic stats, behavioral figures, survey results so the character education team members can formulate a plan that will address the specific issues in their school.”
She gives the example of Pauline J. Petway Elementary School (2014 National School Of Character) in Vineland, New Jersey. They had a very harmonious faculty and excellent relations with parents. But Principal Jennifer Frederico said that they faced other challenges. The school had a truly diverse population (43.9% white, 34.2% Hispanic, 19.7% African-American, 2% Asian/Pacific Islander) and a high poverty rate (50.3% on free or reduced-price lunch) as well as increasing unemployment and unstable home environments within the district. One of the things that most concerned the staff was discipline problems.
“Teachers were particularly frustrated with the fifth graders,” Principal Frederico said. “They were acting out in their own version of ‘senioritis’ and teachers just wanted to punish them and prevent them from participating in field days and other fun activities.” The principal was opposed to that punitive solution, so the Petway staff thought long and hard about finding a better way.
They got together and examined its academic & behavioral stats. They didn’t just look at the numbers; they reviewed the referrals to see what they were for. They saw that the fifth graders just weren’t feeling connected to the school.
They also listened to the views of all, and collectively designed the “Pathway to Patriot Pride.” The Pathway to Patriot Pride was a carefully structured program of 10 values such as Respect, Acceptance, Cooperation and Honesty to reach the final goal of Personal Pride. It was designed to help build connections to the school that their data showed was missing.
Each month the entire school community focused on a new step until all ten values had been visited. After orientation assemblies, students literally walked the Path (a laminated pathway in the hall) as they file out of the auditorium. Many school documents reinforced the Pathway: a parent pledge to support it and a behavior infraction form asking students to identify which step had not been followed. Motivating assemblies, a Patriot Pride Day, endless opportunities for moral action both in school and in the community, and a mentoring program for at-risk students rounded out this many layered program.
As a result of analyzing the data and planning a specific response, Petway had great success in registering social and academic gains for its students. Not only did discipline referrals and suspensions dramatically decline, test scores improved, (When comparing NJASK scores for each grade level and subject area,, Petway scores are 10 pts. higher in LA and 4 pts. higher in Math than Vineland District averages. In comparing Petway to other schools with the same racial and socio-economic make-up in the state, scores are 23 pts. higher in LA and 19 pts. higher in math).
The number of students on the honor roll increased.
Discipline referrals decreased 20%, and most recent surveys reveal a very high degree of satisfaction: 99% of students say, “Students respect each other.” Faculty reported a big change in attitude of fifth graders.
Option 3: Start with the students
Sheril Morgan, Director of Schools of Character Program, said her high school began its character education transformation when students indicated a desire to change the culture. Sheril recommends focusing on Principle 9.3: “Students are explicitly involved in creating and maintaining a sense of community and in other leadership roles that contribute to the character education effort.”
Sheril said, “I really believe that is the difference between making the 11 Principles work at the secondary level versus how they traditionally work in elementary schools,” she said.
At Muskogee High School, where Sheril was a counselor, students were the catalyst of culture change. They wanted to get staff to create the school that the students wanted to attend. Students led core value discussions, engaged the student body during lunchtime through “cafe conversations,” made videos to show core values in action, and recognized behaviors that aligned with those values.
Students also recruited passionate teachers to walk with them on their journey and presented at an all school assembly to cast vision and to let teachers know that they were not alone in their efforts.
“Many said it was the best convocation in years,” Sheril said. “Students wanted to work with teachers to manage classrooms, improve test scores, and create a culture of kindness. We had the paper, the kindling, and the wood all in different places. The students helped unite them all, and lit the match that made our fire.”
For Sheril, engaging and empowering students is the key to successful character education—at least at the secondary level.
Option 4: Do an Overview Assessment
Tamra Nast, another outstanding Character.org trainer and character coach at Birmingham Covington Middle School, likes to start with an overview of all the principles. She says, “I have the group look at the whole set of Principles as equal entities before getting into each specific principle.”
In her trainings, she takes participants through the 11 Principles scoring guide and has them individually assess themselves on each principle. They write down the behaviors they are currently doing per principle using sticky notes and butcher paper. Then, once they have the pieces posted, they can celebrate what they are already doing, look at where their gaps are to move forward and create an action plan. This also helps schools when they apply to become a School of Character.
“I talk a lot about the integration of the 11 Principles and how they work together,” Tamra said. “I find that showing connections between them also helps.”
Next Steps for You
We want you to be successful in educating, inspiring and empowering young people to be ethical and engaged citizens. My hope is that these starting points are helpful to you in thinking about your own character journey.
You can download a copy of the 11 Principles here, you can contact Dave Keller if you’d like to schedule an 11 Principles training at your school, or you can email me or Sheril (our Schools of Character Director) and we would be happy to help you.
Transforming the culture at your school is worth the effort. Whether you decide to begin with staff, data or students, or any one of the 11 Principles, the important thing is to just get started.
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