The “Character Mystery”

The scene: It was at break time on Thursday afternoon at the Character Development Center’s 18th annual Character Matters Conference (USD).

Three attendees all of whom, I found out, were to begin their first year of teaching in the fall approached me.

“Can we ask you a question?”
“Yes, what can I do for the three of you?” My thought ­I have to fix another parking ticket.
“We are confused and puzzled,” said one.
“We can¹t get a handle on what character is really about,” said the other.
“I understand,” I replied, “A common problem among educators and others.”
No time for explanations at this point since we were being called back into the auditorium to hear the next conference speaker.
I said quickly, “ Let’s do this. Give me your email addresses and I will send each of you information that will take the “mystery” out what character and character education is really all about.”
I decided to write this blog and send it to them along with other character education material.

Character is learned—taught to the young by the entertainment industry, the media, the environment they live in, their peers and role models, and hopefully by parents, teachers, schools, youth agencies, and religious institutions.

Character is about learning and practicing the virtues/values/traits of compassion, trust, courage, honesty, gratitude and so on. Gratitude and empathy have been identified as two essential competencies/virtues for leaders and followers in the 21st century. I just read an article that states:

“Studies have repeatedly confirmed that gratitude lies at the heart of joy… (and) is the ‘queen of the virtues.’”

Character is about the choices one makes (good or bad, ethical or unethical). It is about decision-making – the circumstances, the risks, the chances, the consequences, and the rewards. LouAnne Johnson, a school principal, put it this way:

“If we expect children to behave in school, we must teach them to take responsibility for their behavior; but we must also teach them how to make better choices, how to develop personal ethics, and how to solve problems.”

Character is about relationships (strengthen or destroyed) and social skills. You have heard about or read about James Comer’s work at Yale. He reminds us: “With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it.”

“Far too many principals share rules with their teachers but they don’t have a relationship with them. And far too many teachers don’t have positive relationships with their students. So what happens? Teachers and students disengage from the mission of the school….To develop positive relationships you need to enhance communication, build trust, listen to them, make time for them, recognize them, show them you care through your actions and mentor them.”
(NB, “Soul Food Friday” July 26, 2013)

Positive relationships are built upon the application of such social skills as sharing, participating, following directions, listening, taking turns, etc. It also includes learning how to be a friend, how to care for others, how to be polite, respectful, courteous; how to resolve conflicts, appreciate others—you can add your “relationship attributes” to this list.

Character is about “emotional” self-discipline. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman notes that IQ accounts for about 20% of success in life while the remaining 80% is attributed to factors related to emotional intelligence. He includes such factors as self-awareness, managing emotions, empathy, understanding others, social consciousness, self-restraint, and nurturing relationships. He says this:

“A small investment in emotional-social development programs in schools will have a powerful influence at reducing anti-social behaviors of students.”

Interestingly, our local newspaper, U-T San Diego, offered a recent column on the business pages titled “Emotional intelligence: Companies find that workers with high EQ are most productive.” Business types call what we do in our character education programs the “soft skills.”

Finally, have you heard or read about 21st century skills? More than 250 researchers across 60 institutions worldwide categorized these skills into four broad categories:

  1. Ways of thinking: creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and learning;
  2. Ways of working: communication and collaboration;
  3. Tools for working: information and communications technology and information literacy; and
  4. Skills for living in the world: citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

It seems to me that 21st century skills are calling for 21st century people of “character.”