In my first blog on character education I emphasised two points that are crucial:
- The necessity for children to apply their knowledge, so they develop disciplined habits that they practise in their daily lives – without application, virtues will not be internalised
- The importance of the teacher modelling character; the need for us to first develop from the inside out so that we are the model that shines our light – only if we apply the virtues to our own lives, can our influence spread
Children have always learnt best by example. In this blog we will focus on the character development of you; the teacher. Living a life of significance, one that matters, not because of your aesthetic achievements, but because of your contributions and service, living a life of strong character. A teacher’s profession is not chosen because of how much money, power or fame it will bring. Teachers consciously choose their profession because they want to make a difference in the lives of young people. Teacher’s lives are about true success – contribution. It is not a career choice to be taken lightly. Per the NUT notes “Traditionally, the term ‘in loco parentis’ was used to describe the duty of care that a teacher has towards a pupil, to the effect that a teacher has a duty to take the same reasonable care of the pupil that a parent would take in those circumstances.” It is a huge undertaking to become a teacher and a career to be proud of, an honourable position within society.
Let’s start working on ourselves with the grandmother of all virtues that determines our wellbeing and effectiveness with others – humility.
Humility is freedom from the addiction of always comparing ourselves with others and freedom from the disease to prove that we are superior to others. At its heart, humility is the emotional maturity and self-awareness that there’s a lot you do not know, and that much of what you do know, is limited, flawed and uncertain. Humility can open the doors to wisdom in our daily teaching practices. Like the children we teach we all have unique gifts and specific weaknesses. All of us have flaws and blind spots that can cause us to be emotionally reactive, blame others and sabotage relationships. Our moments of weakness can corrupt our character and limit our contribution if we turn a blind eye. To be the model, we must be prepared to build our character from the struggles against our own weaknesses.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, wrote in his one book ‘On Being a Real Person’; “The beginning of worth-while living is the confrontation with ourselves.” Meaning, in order to be an effective teacher, it’s essential to have the self-awareness of our weaknesses, so that we can invest time and energy into becoming stronger in the areas we are lacking. It’s this pivotal awareness of our own flaws that is the key to building our own character. It’s an acceptance that by nature we are all weak and susceptible to sin. This is truly empowering and liberating because we no longer have to pretend to ‘know it all’ or be perfect. If we internalise this paradigm, we have taken the giant step to being able to love and support the children we teach, in spite of their many weaknesses. It’s the child that challenges and tests us the most that reveals our character or lack of character as a teacher. Can you continue to love and support a child unconditionally even though they may be rude, disrespectful, aggressive, disengaged or show no effort or interest in learning? Can you continue to affirm the worth and potential of this child regardless of their behaviour? This is strong character. We have empathy with their weaknesses because we are humble and accept our own fallibility. Our tendency is to fall back, blame the child and perhaps give up on them. If we have not paid the price by first focusing our attention on building our own character, we won’t have the humility to accept the weaknesses of others and give them the support they are crying out for.
Love is one of the most powerful moral virtues in relationships and is the greatest tool a teacher has to build character. As a teacher, you do need to be very demanding, however the delivery of that is what makes the difference. We can be strict and kind, disciplined and loving. Without character we will go for the quick fix; we will be demanding without being loving and be too controlling in our style that results in us disempowering our children’s independence, initiative and growth. There is also a reverse side, to be loving without being demanding and be too weak by letting our children get away with too much, which results in them walking all over us. When children are off course they need to be loved, believed in, affirmed and redirected. This will be very difficult for us if we have not built our personal lives on the virtues of character. We will be too quick to judge and too slow to affirm. It is most helpful to build a school culture of humility. This culture starts with the SLT and then the teachers, because as we change as adults everything else in the school will follow suit.
We are all influenced by cultural shifts in society and a change that has emerged is the ‘Big Me’ culture. More people today are focused on what’s in it for them and see themselves as the centre piece of their world. Research tells us that the median narcissism score has risen by 30 percent in the last two decades. Social media feeds this frenzy of the ‘Big Me’. There can be no place for the ‘Big Me’ culture within the teaching profession, because our pupils will not respect us if we are unable to walk in their shoes. It undermines the integrity of the teaching profession and makes trusting relationships with adults and children impossible. To be an effective teacher, a good role model – we must firstly be a person of good character. Someone who can be trusted, someone who is fundamentally a good person and is able to positively influence children because they are respected. This trust consists of both character and competence. We have integrity and the capabilities to influence the character development of the children we teach. If you are very capable and get excellent academic results with your pupils, is that enough? What if even though you deliver, you lack integrity and the right motives? You can get results, but you don’t really care about the person and you are not committed to developing their character – can you really be trusted with their wellbeing? And, what influence will you have had on your pupils?
Living, breathing and engaging in the real-life application of the virtues of humility and love will help you reach your potential as a teacher. It’s your responsibility to become a person that models the character virtues we need in young people in order for them to thrive. You cannot give your pupils what you do not possess. Your character is not innate or inbuilt. You have to build your character with fortitude throughout life. The critical question is whether you are willing to engage in the moral struggle against your weaknesses. We must aim to continuously develop our character as we teach our children, so that they can leave education stronger in character and be fortified against the many dangers in the world. As a teacher it’s a real triumph to move beyond the superficial (purely teaching academics) towards the things that matter most (building character and preparing children for life).
Clinton Lamprecht – Chairman – United Education Group