When Jessica Lahey started teaching English at a “core virtues” school she thought it would only require talking about empathy and courage when discussing To Kill a Mockingbird. She soon learned what it really meant — and what it meant for her students:
I mean come on. Character education? Core virtues? I teach English, not Sunday school, and besides, I teach middle school. If I were to walk into my eighth grade English class and wax rhapsodic about prudence and temperance, those kids would eat me alive. It’s hard enough to keep the attention of a classroom full of middle school students without coming on like an 18th-century schoolmarm.
Somewhere along the way, someone must have started dosing me with the character education Kool-Aid, because five years in, I have come to understand what real character education looks like and what it can do for children. I can’t imagine teaching in a school that does not have a hard-core commitment to character education, because I’ve seen what that education can mean to a child’s emotional, moral, and intellectual development. Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work. From a practical perspective, it’s simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside – especially when they would rather be playing outside.