At the end of this summer, I proudly completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the culminating weeks of my coursework, I wrote an in-depth literature review on the topic of character education. I was exploring several questions; most prominently, I was seeking a way to sort through the broad spectrum of existing programs, strategies, and beliefs about how schools teach our students to become good citizens in addition to becoming savvy scholars. What strategies are effective? How is that effectiveness measured? How does the complicated history of character education inform our present? Does developing character translate to academic achievement?
As you might imagine, the deeper I dug into those questions, the more complex and conflicting my findings became. On one particular afternoon, feeling overwhelmed at the process of synthesizing and interpreting the research I had read, I resorted to wandering around Golda Meir library. I had this strong sense that, if only I could find the perfect spot in the meandering depths of the stacks, inspiration would flood me and all my struggles would dissipate. Weirdly enough, it happened. It all started with this:
I moved to a desk below an unassuming plaque mounted to the brick. It’s you and me, Walter Hewitt Cheever, I thought, plunking my bag down on the chair. I started to read the information below the name, and there it was:
Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend.
We loved him.
Walter Hewitt Cheever, whoever he was, taught at UWM from age 38 until his death nearly three decades later. He “served faithfully.” My grandfather wasn’t even born yet when Cheever died, but yet here was I, a teacher from 2016, finishing up my master’s degree in the company of his modest little memorial. What struck me was that nothing of Cheever’s academic discipline or scholarship was mentioned. I don’t know what his subject matter of expertise was, what he published, or what content his students learned. Tears, out of nowhere, started to push at my eyelids as I read the epitaph over again. Love. Ideals. Character. These are the words that Cheever’s students and colleagues decided to put on his plaque, way back at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. And oddly enough, the story of this piece of metal in the odd corner of the university library mirrors what, to me, were the most fascinating aspects of my research on character education.
On that day and those that followed, I started to articulate, in writing, everything that I learned about the ways that schools attempt to teach students about things like kindness, leadership, and responsibility. Part of it breaks down to this: the individual classroom teacher has a bigger impact than nearly any other school-based factor–not just on learning, but on the people our students grow up to be.
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
*In 2003, Williams, et.al interviewed students about their feelings regarding a newly implemented character education program at their schools. The responses that the researchers got, however, had little to do with the actual curriculum that the program used. Instead, individual teachers’ behavior and attitudes were consistently mentioned. The questions were about the program, but the answers were about the teachers as role models.
*Also in 2003, another researcher named Richard Weissbourd found that even when schools have been massively restructured in policy or curriculum, students remained largely oblivious to the changes; yet, when questioned about their feelings regarding new initiatives, they typically responded with observations about a specific teacher’s actions or lessons. Again, we see that students interpret individual teachers’ behavior and messages as the voice of their school’s character mission. This puts a lot of moral responsibility on teachers’ shoulders! Weissbourd acknowledged that a special support and training of teachers is needed in order to help character education work: “Schools can best support students’ moral development by helping teachers manage the stresses of their profession and by increasing teachers’ capacity for reflection and empathy” (p. 6).
*Especially for students who may not have a home life that provides safety and empathy, the environments of their classrooms can make a profound difference in academic success as well as social, emotional, and ethical development (Schaps, 2005).
*While mission statements and stated values may create a formal message about the school’s environment, students are keenly aware of the implicit messages about values that they receive via their daily interactions at school. The positive quality of students’ relationships with teachers dramatically affects their receptiveness to character education (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004).
In today’s educational environment, the collection and interpretation of academic proficiency data is highly prioritized. But there’s a huge part of teaching that isn’t addressed in that sphere. Parents, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders also care deeply about helping to raise students who can connect with and care for one another. A teacher’s work goes beyond teaching content. In their own classrooms every day, teachers directly impact a student’s potential to flourish, empathize, collaborate, create, and lead.
I’ve begun my school year reflecting on these things and thinking back to Walter Hewitt Cheever’s memorial plaque. It’s humbling to think that, especially as the years pass, students may remember relatively little of what we teach, and relatively much more about the kind of people we seem to be in the classroom. To help remind myself of this, I’ve framed my classroom expectations within four core values: bravery, compassion, dedication, and joy–these are ways of thinking and being that have helped me prosper as a person, as a student, and as a teacher. Throughout the year, when I can, I’m going to connect these values to what we do in class. (Bravery and public speaking, dedication and research writing…) It’s my way of purposefully honoring the seamless relationship between building young scholars and guiding young citizens. If they’re watching and listening that closely, I want to make sure that I share something of value when it comes to the things that we fall back on when mere knowledge won’t suffice.
The next time you feel like maybe what you do in the classroom doesn’t matter, think of Cheever. Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend. We loved him.
Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2004). Research-based character education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72-85.
Schaps, E. (2005). The role of supportive school environments in promoting academic success. In T. Hansen, H. Knoff, C. Muller & E. Schaps (Eds.), Getting results: Developing safe and healthy kids, update 5 (p. 37). Sacramento: California Department of Education.
Weissbourd, R. (2003). Moral teachers, moral students. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 6.
Williams, D. D., Yanchar, S. C., Jensen, L. C., & Lewis, C. (2003). Character education in a public high school: A multi-year inquiry into Unified Studies. Journal of Moral Education, 32(1), 3-33.