With a new academic year approaching, I have started to put more emphasis on changes I want to make in my teaching. As a teacher of mathematics but also an educator who cares deeply about character and leadership development, I have many areas where I can invest time and energy. This year the question that most preoccupies my thoughts is, “What will I do differently this year to really help my students develop their character?”

A few weeks ago I attended training on organizational change based on the book, Reframing Change by Latting and Ramsey. One idea that really struck a chord with me is staying in the question and not the answer. The idea is simple; based on our life experiences, when an event happens that creates a strong emotional response, we can jump to a foregone conclusion about what is happening. For example, my son recently called me to ask a question. I asked if I could call him later to discuss as I was busy. After several days of trying to contact him with no response, I jumped from living in the question, “How can I help my son?” to being in the answer, “My son is ignoring me because I didn’t answer his question right away!” Silly? You bet, but this often happens when you live in the answer. When I corrected myself and stayed in the question, many possibilities showed up such as he has been busy moving, he had meetings at work, and even he is ignoring me. With all these possibilities open to me, I had the freedom to contact him again. (It turns out he had been busy moving.)

What does this have to do with education? David Brooks’ recent op-ed Honor Code highlights the danger educators can cause from being in the answer. He points out that our education system has a belief that boys who are not neat, rule-abiding, and gentle are problem students that must be corrected. In other words, educators are living in the answer, not the question. The idea that these boys are a problem to be corrected has led to a “boy crisis.” He points to a loss in young male writing performance, lower rates of attendance at college, and a loss of science and math ability. Staying in the answer hurt some of these male students. Living in the question would have educators asking, “How can I help these passionate and energetic young boys develop academically and emotionally?”

As I reflect on what I want to do in my classroom this year, I found I am often in the answer. Instead of thinking, “What can be done to improve character development?” I think, “The students need a great deal of help and I must fix all their problems.” Again, staying in the question opens many possibilities for me. The most basic insight I have gained is that we can all work on our own character development. This year my character education efforts will be focused on personal improvement. In particular, I want to work on gratitude and humility. I want to be more appreciative of the gifts I have in my life, especially the gift of working each day with bright students. I want to practice humility in my classroom – listening and not appearing to have all the answers. My next challenge is to think about how to bring these efforts into the classroom in an effective and transparent way. However I accomplish this task, I must stay in the question and not the answer.

If you are an educator interested in character development and are preparing for the new school year, I ask that you reflect on your goals and stay in question “What am I going to do about my character development that will have a positive impact on my students?”