Character Educator in Focus: Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn, Ph.D., program director (right), Nancy Erickson, assistant program director (center), and Antar Salim, D.B.A., business administration program (left), discuss plans for Saint Mary’s character and virtue education.

Michael Hahn is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Character and Virtue Education at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Alongside his role at Saint Mary’s, Michael is enrolled on the Jubilee Centre’s MA Character Education programme. In this blog, Michael discusses his role as Program Director, what Saint Mary’s have set out to achieve and their approach to character and virtue education.

Michael Hahn, Ph.D

At my first teaching assignment, I introduced myself to my new colleagues in the other departments throughout the school.  I asked one senior colleague what he taught, to which he responded, “I teach students.”  Not intended as a wry comment, this bit of wisdom from an experienced teacher has marked my own understanding of teaching and learning.  Since then, I’ve taught students in high school, college, and graduate school.  My own academic interests are at the intersection of theology and education, especially the future of American Catholic higher education.  I believe that a renewed focus on character and virtue education is key for Catholic colleges and universities to both resist the trend toward transactional education and also to survive in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape. 

Currently, I am an assistant professor in the school of education and serve as the program director of character and virtue education.  My role in collaboration with the university-wide character education advisory council is to expand the integration of character and virtue education throughout the academic curriculum and campus life.  We are using the Jubilee Centre’s Framework for Higher Education to inform this work.  More information can be discovered on our website: https://character.smumn.edu/

What does Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota hope to achieve through its focus on Character and Virtue?

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota was founded in 1912 as a small school in Winona.  A lot has changed since then including the addition of the Twin Cities and Rochester campuses.  We are now one of the largest comprehensive universities in the state!  Our current strategic plan “Building a Future Full of Hope” grounds character and virtue education in our Lasallian Catholic mission and gives it a place of prominence.  Character education and virtue formation have always been part of the Saint Mary’s experience, but we are now giving it renewed attention, in part because we have seen how essential it is, whether you are a traditional undergraduate student or an adult learner preparing for a career.  In particular, we are working in our school of education to make character and virtue a lens to prepare future teachers and school leaders.    

What approach has Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota taken?

Our university patron, John Baptist de la Salle, is the saint of teachers.  One of his key insights is that before teachers can teach their students well, they first must become brothers and sisters to each other.  This is particularly true now with all of the challenges that teachers face with the ongoing pandemic and political and social questions.  For this reason, we started a faculty learning community.  We have great teachers at Saint Mary’s, but partly what makes them great is that they are still learners!  This university-wide faculty community gathers twice per month to read and discuss character and virtue education and how it can enhance student learning.  We have faculty with specialization in the humanities, natural sciences, business, education, and theology who participate and this interdisciplinary exploration of character helps to prepare our students not only for a living, but for life.    

We also received a grant from the Kern Family Foundation to specifically support our training of future school leaders in our Education Specialist (Ed.S.) program.  Currently, our school of education at Saint Mary’s prepares the greatest number of school leaders in the state, and in collaboration with Kern, we are working to enhance the curriculum, dispositional expectations, and professional development opportunities to include a renewed focus on character and virtue education.  We hope to expand this work in the coming years to include partner schools.

Formal assessment of character education is challenging but it’s critical.  We want to know the effect that our initiatives are having on faculty, staff, students, and the wider community.  The best literature suggests a multi-pronged strategy, and that is what we are doing at Saint Mary’s, including qualitative studies and self-reflection.  But there are other more informal ways that suggest what we are doing in this area is having a positive effect.  We have received great interest from faculty, staff, and students to participate in the programs, speakers, and service opportunities that we offer.  We have also received great interest from the larger Saint Mary’s community including alumni and benefactors to support this important work. 

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