How Do You Teach Character?

We had a fantastic admission reception in New York earlier this month. There, a prospective parent (actually, I think, the godmother of a prospective student, as it happens) asked a question that I’ve gotten regularly since become Head: How do you teach character?
She also asked, “How do you define character?” which is a great question, is tied intimately to how you teach it, and needs to be the subject of another post…or a book.)

I think I answered adequately but I did a bad job with part of my answer.

First, my answer in the moment: I focused on the fact that teaching character in a boarding school can only happen when you have great faculty. Frederick Gunn wrote (in 1870), “every teacher will actually teach that which he is.” Yep. I think Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle said something like that even before Mr. Gunn. The faculty are the core of a school, not only in the sense that they need to be excellent teachers-knowledgeable in their discipline and good at equipping high school students to learn-but also to be great human beings. It’s easy to find one or the other but hard to find both, especially when you then require those great human beings to live in a dorm, contribute to the co-curricular life of school, etc.-it’s a high calling indeed.

Then, those great human beings need to be willing and able to dive into the most awkward, complex situations with confidence (real or feigned) because we know that those “teachable moments” come exactly at the worst times-come precisely because it was the worst time. A colleague once suggested that part of a prospective teacher’s interview should include a moment when the interviewer sees a member of the varsity lacrosse team throwing a ball against a wall that he’s not supposed to be throwing a ball against, interrupts the interview and says to the candidate, “I’m sorry-he knows he’s not supposed to be doing that. Would you please tell him to stop?” and then watch to see how the candidate responds. And holding a student accountable for throwing a ball against the wrong wall is easy compared to some things that teachers and parents deal with-but I don’t need to tell you that.1 Whether or not a teacher can “keep their wits about them” (to paraphrase Kipling and, I think, William Wallace) in that moment is the true test of whether they can add “teaching character” to “teaching calculus” as a skill. The good news is it can certainly be learned. It takes practice, of course, but students give us plenty of that, and most of it is fairly benign (like telling the student who illegally parked in the Gunn Memorial Library parking lot that he needs to go apologize to the library’s director face-to-face-I did it by email, which I didn’t like, but I’ll see him tomorrow).

Which is all to say that the first, best way to teach character is daily, hourly. It’s calling kids on the things that count, in the moment, often using a bit of humor to take the edge off or leaving the edge on because it’s just one of those moments. And not every time, at least on the jots and tittles. You have to have “earned the right to be heard” which can happen any number of ways, but it starts with being a person of integrity. (Ironically, the people who most enjoy “teaching character” are likely the least effective at it. They are more like the teacher Mr. Gunn describes in the same piece I quoted above, “You are mean, selfish, stingy, perhaps. You attempt to control a school…But the [students] have found you out; they have a nickname ready for you.”)

There’s so much more to it, but that was at least part of the answer I gave.

The reason it wasn’t enough of an answer is that we do so many things programmatically that also facilitate the teaching of character, and, while a school can’t rest on a program in this area, it certainly needs one. The first and best example here is our LEADS program. You can have a bunch of great teachers who are great humans using those key moments with students, but a formal curriculum like LEADS provides an important opportunity to move from the concrete to the abstract, to make the personal theoretical. The problem, of course, is that with character, as with leadership and other important topics, too many schools do the theoretical well but don’t follow through on the personal. One of the things that attracted me to The Gunnery in the first place was a historic and enduring commitment to do both. It takes work, daily, to do this well but the fruit of it is such a beauty to behold!

Similarly, on the question of character’s definition, I failed to point out at the reception that our mission actually defines character, to a degree at least, when it states “The Gunnery rests on the four cornerstones of character: scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility.” That’s well said, though it can raise more questions than it answers because of what it leaves out, intentionally or not (it’s a mission statement, not an essay), and because of the position of “scholarship” first. I’m still working this out, but I think what our mission gets at by including scholarship in a definition of character-or, at least, stating that scholarship is a “cornerstone” of character-is what I would call wisdom. In other words, if character is something like “knowing the good, right thing to do and then doing it, even if it hurts” then having the wisdom to know, on some level, what is the right thing to do is fundamental to doing it. And wisdom is something more than intelligence, as we know. (There are plenty of intelligent people who aren’t very wise, I will argue.) Once you know the right thing to do, the other key ingredient is having the courage to do it. That’s my working definition of character-wisdom and courage-and what I hope we will continue to devote ourselves to here.

And though I said defining character should be a separate post (which it should be but this will have to suffice for now), it’s also important to point out what character isn’t. Specifically, character and executive function skills are not the same thing, though a person with one may have the other. I say this because there is currently a well-meaning attempt  to redefine character as something we can all agree on-as the skills necessary for a certain kind of success in the world-rather than something that might ignite debate because we don’t agree on what “the right thing to do” is (what’s the right thing to do about abortion, climate change, knowing that your friend cheated, or taxes-that’s dicey stuff). The efforts I’m talking about-to redefine character-are led, in some cases, by friends of mine of whom I think very highly and from whom I’ve learned a lot. They take shape in efforts like “The Science of Character.” (Make no mistake-this is a great effort. Carefully thought and constructed, certain to have a positive impact-includes “wisdom” and “courage” and other awesome traits]and in use informally at our school already.) And while having a “growth mindset” may be a necessary ingredient to having good character in some cases, there are plenty of people of good character-who know and do the right thing-who don’t have a growth mindset in the way Carol Dweck meant it.

In some cases I’m dancing with shadows, but I go back to a more controversial starting point when I think about what character is and how to educate for it. James Hunter, a professor of sociology at UVA, wrote a book entitled The Death of Character: Moral Education In A World Without Good Or Evil. That, to me, puts our situation well. And in the best known part of that book Hunter writes,

We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for.  To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels.  This price is too high for us to pay.  We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.  In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

There is a lot in there that raises flags for 21st century people, but it’s precisely those things that we need to come to terms with. I’ll leave it there other than to say that one of the many reasons I am convinced that boarding school is the best model of education for the 21st century is that we are able to create a truly pluralistic context for meaningful character education. Not that we all do, but we can.

…Update-this topic is unceasingly interesting and ever-evolving. Reading through some recent work on it, I came across this essay. It’s great work. The thing to pay attention to in the introduction (note: I haven’t read the essay, just the introduction) is the author’s (well intentioned) redefinition of “character” as, essentially, “non-cognitive skills”-those very important habits and skills that research shows are critical variables to success in school and life. The author and I agree on the importance of those skills. I just disagree with using the word character to describe them. It seems like quibbling over semantics but the thing I want to focus on is all that’s lost when we abandon, essentially, a more traditional understanding of character. The move from “character” to, say, “character traits” is more significant than may appear at first. I hope to return to this soon.


1 It’s worth pointing out that responding to these moments is what separates experienced faculty from parents-the wheat from the chaff, if I may be so bold. We see this stuff all the time and are either good and consistent at dealing with it or we are not. Most parents have a sample size of two or three and have about ten life changing teachable moments with their kids (I made up the number ten and would be fascinated to know if you think it’s significantly more or less).