Reflections on Character Education From a Former Secondary School Teacher

Before coming to the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, I spent three years training and working as a secondary school teacher. Working in this role fuelled my conviction for character education within schools and allowed me valuable insight into the concerns that teachers have about the idea of its implementation. This blog explores those concerns and seeks to remedy some of the confusions and apprehension that I’ve encountered from staff in schools.

There is still a lot of confusion as to what exactly character and character education is. I’ve always thought one of the best definitions of character and character education can be found in the Jubilee Centre’s The Knightly Virtues, which describes character as ‘the constellation of virtues possessed by an individual and character education is the deliberate attempt to cultivate these virtues’. To me, virtues are constructive traits that are beneficial to both the individual and to the wider society. Virtues include curiosity, courage, compassion, community volunteering, and confidence among others. Character education is the notion that by the time pupils leave school they should understand and view virtues as important – enabling them to develop into mature adults and to realise their full potential.

Character education is not new. It has existed as an idea from ancient times to the present day, however, the drive and focus in schools on academic attainment has resulted in character education having lower importance in the educational agenda for the past few decades. The issue is that this narrow focus on academic attainment has led schools having a great resemblance to factories, outputting students with different grades of quality for the benefit of the employment market. Such a narrow emphasis on attainment leads to pupils being perceived more like products than as the individuals they truly are.

Children with an education that is enriched with character development will be better equipped for the trials of adulthood, which requires more than just academic knowledge to flourish. I cannot claim that character education will lead to all children achieving better grades but it is within reason to think that children who have a language of virtues reinforced through their daily school routine will be all the more likely to see those virtues as important and to exemplify those virtues themselves. If pupils are more virtuous, then they will be more likely to strive to reach their full potential and to make themselves and their communities’ better places.

There is still confusion what character education looks like in practice. Some advocate character education as a discrete timetabled subject similar to citizenship or religious education. I am firmly opposed to this stance; relegating character to a weekly timetable slot will only strengthen the view that character and virtues are not something that should be regarded as a discipline for life but merely as instruments to be picked out from a toolbox when socially advantageous. Character is holistic and therefore it should both permeate and be reinforced throughout the whole school.

A recurring concern is that the introduction of character education will just add to the workload of teachers. However, the reality is that many teachers are already doing many aspects of character education, even if it is not realised.  If you work in a school and you monitor pupils’ behaviour on a day-to-day basis, embed values in lessons, run form-time activities, adhere to a school ethos or model good behaviour, then you are already doing part of what constitutes character education.

So why bother with character education if we are already doing it in some form? Schools are presently not legally obliged to shape the character of their pupils, although they are required to develop the SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) dimensions of the child.

In my opinion, SMSC is an ambiguous and ineffective term. One school I have been part of took the idea that SMSC arose naturally through daily interactions and would therefore not require any additional emphasis from teachers, SMSC was relegated to a mere tick-box exercise on lesson plans with little follow-up assessment. This school also had no embedded school values or ethos when I initially arrived; perhaps unsurprisingly behaviour deteriorated over time and grades plummeted. It is clear to me that the schools that neglect the development of their pupil’s character in favour of focusing all their efforts on attainment will always fail to achieve in the long-term, as pupils will not have the right mind-set to overcome difficulty, leading to agitation in the school body which will eventually result in attainment suffering.

This experience was in sharp contrast to another school I have been part of, which proudly displayed their eight core virtues on their walls. Each week, the school would focus on one of the eight virtues that would be present throughout the weekly assembly and in form-time; pupils would have content structured around that particular virtue and subject teachers were asked to include references to the virtue in the planning of their lessons, wherever they were able.

The disparity between these two accounts is troubling, especially when we imagine this at a national level. A child can go to one school in England and experience a significantly higher quality of character development than that of a child in a neighbouring school down the road. Children who are in schools that have little consideration for the development of character are being failed by the education system. They are unprepared for their adult life and more needs to be done to address this.

The last concern is that teachers fear they would lose ‘subject time’ to ‘character time.’ I don’t see this being the case; teachers can ask questions which both shape character and are academically rigorous. A science teacher, for example, might ask questions that refer to past scientific pioneers who displayed courage in pushing the limits of human knowledge despite the risks they faced, such as Darwin, Galileo or Jenner. The history teacher might ask questions that relate to the qualities of important past figures, for instance, what are the virtues that Joan of Arc displayed? (Courage, hope, leadership) I am not suggesting that individual subjects should utilise one particular set of virtues but I do think some virtues may crop up more often than others within each subject. We would rightly think that sportsmanship is more likely to emerge in a physical education lesson than a cookery lesson, but there is no reason why the cookery teacher should exclude making links to the idea of sportsmanship. All subjects are able to make a unique but broad contribution to shaping the character of pupils.

In closing, teachers and senior leaders can help advance the cause of character education through raising ideas of character education in staff meetings; promoting an ethos which focuses on virtues in their school; and planning schemes of work and activities which will get pupils engaged and thinking about virtue and encouraging character as something which should be holistic through all aspects of school life.

Jason Metcalfe is a Research Associate at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

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