Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms

It’s been some time since I last wrote a blog post. Pole, as my Kenyan friends would say, but I’m back (!) and it’s never too late to write. 😉

In my time as an educator, experience has taught me that, regardless of the academic subject one teaches – be it languages, chemistry, maths, history, etc – this is a profession that includes mentoring and, consciously or unconsciously, influencing children and young people.

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In my case, I teach young people. Every day I deal with students who are in constant search of attention and affection. There are times when these guys come to my classroom feeling overly sensitive, overly conscious about their selves, bodies or skin colour. Some days they will be feeling confident and happy; other days they will clearly be irritated or depressed.

And those same teens also come to lessons with their wit, enthusiasm, great humour, energy, dreams, ambitions, plenty of emotional needs and, yes, love.

But I’m not trained to deal with my students’ emotional state of mind. Like most teachers, I’d dare to say, we just have to make use of our common sense, empathy, problem-solving skills, flexibility, tolerance, conscientiousness, our own experiences as adults and, hopefully, maturity, to deal with the unexpected circumstances that a brain in constant growth can cause.

Yet, do teachers possess all of the above-mentioned traits? Certainly not. Hence the need for training programs that will help us to: Deliver amazing lessons as per our specific subjects, while at the same time have the ability to deal successfully with the human needs of our students and guide them through the path of emotional health and well-being. Not easy.

Coursera

Like many teachers, I’ve had training and workshops on child protection, behaviour management, first aid, bullying prevention, etc. But for some time, I’d been yearning to do some sort of course that would allow me to better understand my students’ emotions.

So one day, through a good old friend called “Coursera” I found the title of a course that caught my attention straight away: Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms. But besides the title of the course, what really convinced me to go ahead and do it were the words of Dave Levin, the facilitator:

“We’re so excited that you’ll join us to talk about how we can weave character into the very DNA of our classrooms and schools, right alongside the absolutely critical academics that we teach.”

Yay! I’d finally found what I was looking for!

24 Character Strengths

Inspired by the field of positive psychology, the course on Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms focuses on the study of 24 character strengths:

appreciation of beauty & excellence bravery citizenship creativity curiosity

fairness gratitude grit (persistence and resiliency) forgiveness and mercy

hope (optimism) humility humour integrity kindness leadership Love

love of learning open-mindedness perspective prudence/discretion self-control

spirituality zest (energy and enthusiasm)

According to Angela Duckworth, strengths such as grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity can positively influence on academic performance and can even be predictors of success beyond the high school years.

During the first week of the course, teachers are asked to think about our students and to rank the list of character strengths from what we think are the most important (1) to the least important for their success (24). We then have to answer to a survey that throws a list that ranks our personal strengths.

I had to compare the list I made for my students with the results of the survey about my character and note instances where the rankings converged and diverged.

Some of the convergent character strengths were grit, zest, love of learning and self-control. But I was surprised to find out that, although forgiveness and mercy came out among the top three results for my personal character, I myself didn’t rank it to be as important for my students. In fact, I ranked it among the least important strengths, number 23!

This certainly made me reflect on my own assumptions. It seems that I myself have fallen into the trap of looking at character in isolation, not always considering my students’ mind growth as part of their entire learning experience. 😕

Teachers are humans, but also role models

In addition to becoming aware of the assumptions I was having about my students’ character strengths, another aspect of the course that I found valuable was doing activities and peer evaluations aimed at making us self-assess our own nature, strengths and weaknesses.

I appreciated this dynamic as it can help educators develop sympathetic awareness and tolerance of the challenges our students face in developing their characters.

It also makes teachers aware of the fact that, in addition to being guides and mentors to our students, we are role models, whether we want it or not. And it’s somehow frightening to know that we’re actually being observed Monday to Friday, for years, by impressionable minds that are in the process of forming an identity.

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Students of concern

During the course, I followed a few forum discussions. One of them caught my attention as teachers were commenting on their students of concern, those with poor academic performance, lack of motivation, etc. Unlike them, my students of concern are different.

I currently work for an international school, represented by students from over 80 nationalities. And I feel more concerned about those students that perform really well, the ones that are going through school always succeeding. And this was also a point made by Dave Levin:

“It just feels as though there’s a disruptive quality to this. You see, I worry that in some ways they get a message that life is easy. As a matter of fact, for some of them life is really super easy. The trouble is that they’re going to reach a point in their lives where it’s not.”

The question I ask myself as a teacher with that kind of students of concern is how do I help them? How do I make them change that belief that “everything’s perfect and everything’s going to be fine and I’m always going to be an A student”?

This becomes even more difficult when there is that pressure of helping students prepare to enter into the university that will eventually lead them to pursue the career that’s going to land them into “the perfect job”. More often than not, that sort of job has to include being highly remunerated and working in a competitive organisational culture.

So, as a high-school teacher, I’m interested in mind-growth, right? And yet, what top universities are looking for is perfect or close to perfect subject results, not whether the student has acquired maturity in grit, zest, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope or modesty.

And that’s a big problem. In the words of Levin,

“There is a perception or, should I say, a misperception that the work around these character strengths does not seem as necessary.”

The challenge for us, teachers in the 21st century

As mentors of young minds that are arguably becoming “smarter” than us thanks to the ongoing technological advances, we have an enormous responsibility.

In an attempt to succeed in our profession as contemporary teachers, we are under a pressure to constantly develop, and rightly so. It should not be enough to have completed PGCEs, degrees or masters on specific subjects and to teach them, even though we may have done so for years.

It should be in fact obligatory to participate in training programs that will allow us to keep pace with the latest pedagogical trends. But to truly succeed as contemporary teachers, continuous training should include the kind that aims at understanding the needs of our students, not as academic subjects, but as human beings.

It is true that teachers don’t quite know how to teach character and it is not true that one or a few courses in the subject will suddenly make us experts. But that’s OK. We don’t know how to be parents either, yet we learn as we go.

As teachers we want to help our kids and young people succeed academically. This is absolutely essential, but it should only be a part of our job.

Striving to help our students develop the character strengths that are necessary to become good people should be another equally important part, just as it should be to provide them with the life tools they’ll need to overcome the challenges and thrive in a world which is volatile and sometimes insane. Let’s try.

Until next time….

In Samburu, Kenya. 10 Feb 2019

 

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