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Building character one lesson at a time

Character development is the core of an educator's job


KIRK BROOKS and his wife, Meghan, live with their four children on an Owen County farmstead. He writes about the challenges of slowing down one’s life and staying in one place — and the rewards.

Principals can be an arrogant bunch. I realize I am risking the possibility of offending any readers who happen to also be principals, but if they’re a good principal, they’ll know I’m telling the truth.

The school year is fast approaching. At the time of this writing, I am about two weeks away from opening the doors of our vocational school (now called “The ATC” or “Area Technology Center”) to students from Owen, Trimble, Gallatin, Henry, and Carroll counties. Like so many other schools and employers, my school has had an awful time trying to find men and women of good character who want to work. And character really is the baseline, important attribute we’re looking for. I would hire an inexperienced teacher who exhibits integrity over an expert teacher who doesn’t any day. We’ve had a few applicants, but some, quite frankly, were not made of the right stuff, not the kind I was comfortable putting in front of kids. I’m a principal. And so, when I interview candidates with a small panel of folks on my side of the table, the question I always ask them to remember before the interview begins is, “Would you want this man or woman to be a mentor to your children?” That’s usually a good barometer for everyone on the panel, provided they have children.

We seem to know instinctively that teaching and character are inseparable. It would, for instance, be difficult to imagine a good teacher also being a person of less than exemplary character. It is a little easier, however, to imagine the possibility of a very talented mechanic who is also a crook or a liar. That’s because something about teaching students anything requires that teachers are, at bottom, men or woman of character, who can impart that good character to their listeners. If they’re not, no matter how much they might know about math or history or welding, we don’t want them teaching our children.

I recently attended a seminar called “The Basics of Teaching Ethics to Students of All Ages.” I chose this particular seminar to find out what education was telling educators about how to teach character. I was curious and hopeful. In it, the lecturer explained that kids don’t want to be talked to anymore. That, in fact, they shouldn’t be. That talking to students is an ineffective strategy for teaching ethics (or anything) because they’d rather watch videos on the internet. The best way to teach ethics to students then, it turns out, is to buy an online curriculum (conveniently sold by the same company that paid this lecturer’s salary) and show online videos to students about right and wrong.

I left disappointed.

I knew, of course, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to compete with the overdose of fast-paced social media and internet consumption that students regularly subject themselves to. This was only compounded by the last year or two of “COVID school,” where students had no choice but to do most of their learning on a screen. Still, I’m not yet as convinced as the lecturer of the aforementioned seminar that the answer is to surrender our children’s attention to the screen and give up trying to have real human interactions in a classroom because that’s what students want.

My own children “want” all sorts of things–candy right before bedtime, for instance; that doesn’t make it good or right. In the fight for their attention, just because we (even us adults) seem to find screen time more attractive than human interactions, if left to our own devices, doesn’t mean human interactions are no longer effective or necessary. On the contrary, I would argue that they are now more necessary than ever. Take the idea of teaching character, for instance. Can a computer program or video be a more effective character model than a good teacher?

In Owen County, where I live and have taught, and where I still interact regularly with several teachers and administrators, we are fortunate to still have, I think, an underlying cultural belief that character development is inherently at the core of our work. This may be true of most good rural communities. What we may lack in funding or the most up-to-date technological innovations, we usually make up for in the things that matter, in this case, character. And for the future of the world, it is important to remember that innovations and trends in teaching and technology come and go. What makes a person good does not change and will always be necessary for the health of our world, our families, our marriages and our communities.

And this brings us back to arrogant principals.

The good principal and the arrogant principal both believe their work is important. The arrogant principal believes his or her school must succeed because its failure would be a negative reflection of their own image–the principal’s primary concern. A good principal, though, is a person of character. They believe their work is of the utmost importance because they feel the weight of their responsibility to create a workplace where one generation (of teachers) can hand down a culture of good character to a new generation (of students).

Teachers do this within the contexts of their particular disciplines: a math classroom or a science lab. But what good is it to be a master scientist or mathematician if you have not also learned to tell the truth, to apologize when you make a mistake, to learn from mistakes, to have the humility to acknowledge that you are capable of mistake-making, to show up on time, to love your spouse and children, to be humble, or to work hard?


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