Character Educator in Focus: Maureen Spelman

Maureen Spelman currently serves as a Visiting Professor in Educational Leadership and the Coordinator of Character Initiatives at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Supported by the funding of the Kern Family Foundation, Maureen is completing her second year in the Jubilee Centre’s MA Character Education programme.

Maureen Spelman, Ed. D.

As part of my service and research agenda I have been able to accrue over a decade of experience supporting school leaders, teachers, and students in Chicago area high-needs parochial schools. Inner-city Catholic schools work with children who are facing monumental challenges. At a previous institution my colleagues and I worked with over a dozen different Catholic elementary schools serving children from pre-school to grade eight. These schools were located in Chicago’s neediest neighborhoods where often less than two-thirds of young people graduate from high school and most families qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Many of the children in these schools faced disruptive family situations, food-insecure homes, gangs, crime, drugs, and racism.

While the specific needs and goals for these individual schools varied, the common thread was building the capacity of the leaders and teachers to better serve the needs of the students in their care. The desired outcomes for each partnership school were aimed at changing the culture, improving the social-emotional lives of students, and increasing academic achievement. Since these partnerships included the Catholic Archdiocese, a Catholic university, and Catholic elementary schools, there was a significant focus on the religious/moral education of the children in these impoverished communities. Perhaps the most significant lesson learned over the decade of research was that the school leader (whether administrative and/or teacher leader) is absolutely critical in creating and sustaining positive changes in school culture.

I specifically chose to move to North Central College (NCC) because of the partnership in place between the Educational Leadership program and the Kern Family Foundation. The program emphasis on the development of leaders that are both effective and ethical resonated with my experience of working with leaders in high-needs schools. Our team was charged with the task of redesigning the program curriculum to intentionally infuse program coursework with virtue ethics. The Educational Leadership program mission and vision are based on the belief that character is a defining element of effective and authentic leadership. The redesigned program is grounded in a framework of program-specific leadership virtues, the development of leader character, cultivating practical wisdom, and the moral purpose of building the capacity of aspiring leaders to go forward and bring Cultures of Character practices into the heart of their school communities.

Reflections

Initial data gathered on the redesigned NCC Educational Leadership program suggests a positive impact. Anecdotal data provides additional supporting evidence of the benefits when viewing the study of management and operations through the lens of virtue ethics. The responses of leader candidates have been overwhelmingly positive. According to a number of character education thought leaders, the school principal is second only to the classroom teacher in terms of impact on student growth. All of this leads me to believe that a similar shift in grounding could be extremely beneficial for initial teacher preparation programs.

U. S. teacher preparation programs are historically skill oriented and focused on technical competence. Many years ago, when I was training as a teacher there was very little emphasis on either ethical practices or classroom-based dilemmas. In fact, my training was strictly pedagogical in nature. However, teachers need to be prepared to handle the ethical decisions – large or small – faced on a daily basis. A number of thought leaders are raising awareness around the belief that teaching is an inherently moral profession. It seems the time is right for a movement to place character education as more of a central focus in teacher preparation.

Personally, I do believe that character education is a critical component of good teacher preparation. Infusing character education throughout the curriculum would help to ensure that new teachers would be prepared to deliver effective instruction and handle critical incidents with the guidance of a moral compass. If I were to redesign teacher preparation programs, I would take a page from Megan Robinson at Elvetham Heath Primary School, who carefully involved all stakeholders in discussions around the school’s virtues. Engaging all of the stakeholders in a teacher preparation program would create ownership in the design of an institutional-specific virtue ethics framework. Those discussions would lead to a customized framework that would prepare ethical and effective teacher candidates.

Once a grounding framework is in place, the next step would be to have collaborative teams come up with specific programmatic learning outcomes aligned with the teacher moral, intellectual, civic and performance strengths represented in the customized framework. The final list of outcomes would then be expanded into sub-outcomes that reflect the progression in the acquisition of the outcomes. The collaborative design team would then map those sub-outcomes (along with the required teaching standards) into the sequence of teacher preparation courses to ensure that they are infused throughout the curriculum. In an ideal teacher preparation program, teacher candidates would acquire the core teaching/learning competencies through the lens of a virtuous teacher.

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