Kenny is Character Education Lead at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, where he also teaches religion and philosophy. He is in the third year of the MA Character Education programme and discusses in this blog how he is implementing a strategic approach to character development across the school.
Like many character educators, I was interested in character education long before I knew such a thing existed. At eighteen, I went on a Raleigh International expedition to Namibia, and while there I witnessed the change that many volunteers underwent in their characters, myself included. Courage, confidence, empathy, compassion, discipline – all were nurtured and grew through the experience. I suppose my journey into teaching has been partly inspired by this experience; I have always been more interested in formation than information as the aim of education, not that the two are exclusive.
For this reason, it was a privilege to take up Emmanuel College’s first appointment of Character Education Lead. It is a role that has coincided with the school’s re-articulated vision, mission and virtues – these have been over a year in the making. While the school has always spoken the language of character development, our renewed vision and virtues have given fresh motivation and focus to the task. These are launching at what ancient Greeks might call a Kairos moment as a school community, a word which describes a time which is opportune for change. The pandemic felt like a scene change at the theatre, where the lights go out and the furniture is shifted – which allowed us to decide how it looks when the lights came back on. It is therefore with some genuine excitement that we work out anew how embedding our vision and emphasis on character virtues works itself out across the College.
What are we trying to do?
The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd wrote about her erstwhile vocation as a teacher as having the ‘heaven-appointed task of trying to prevent a few of the students who pass through the institution from conforming altogether to the approved pattern’. There is something kindred in this to our own vision, as consumerism and individualism that dominate culture and shape us seem to be at odds with human flourishing. We would like to tell a different story of what it means to flourish as both citizens and as individuals. The ethos is predicated on the Christian conviction that all people are infinitely precious, morally responsible and made for a purpose. We believe it is a better story, and one that our students will benefit from becoming part of.
How are we doing this work?
In trying to give our vision arms and legs we are following the Jubilee Centre’s observation that good character education needs to be taught, sought and caught. I will briefly sketch out below how we try to harmonise these three things in our approach to character education at Emmanuel.
Taught character education features in each year group through a series of lectures in our personal development programme. Through these sessions students are developing their virtue literacy by understanding the key concepts and intentions in character development, and what this looks like in practice. This allows students to understand and narrate their own character journey, and gifts both students and staff with the language for discussing character. On top of this the school also has a weekly assembly where the school’s virtues are regularly unpacked with the intention of challenging and inspiring students. While these inputs are powerful, we are also very aware of the need for students to reflect on and apply their learning. To support this, all students have been given a reflection journal and a tutor time each week in which to reflect on their personal development, this is guided through questions which pick up on the character learning points from the week.
Sought character is something students have missed so much of during Covid, and something the reset has allowed a renewed focus on. With some changes to the shape of the day, all students in the school now take part in a co-curricular activity at least once a week and will take part in the school’s funded residential programme. These experiences are there to enrich the school experiences, though also intended to be formative on their character. Teachers will be attuned to the moments that lend themselves to noticing or discussing character and virtue.
Finally, character ‘caught’ is integral to successfully embedding the virtues. This takes the form of highlighting role models who have embodied and lived out the virtues. This means noticing virtue in those in the public eye, bringing inspiring speakers into school, modelling it as teachers and crucially celebrating character in our students. We aim to be intentional about creating a vision of success and the ‘good life’ which aligns with our vision and virtues. If the virtuous life doesn’t look desirable to our students or do much to inspire them, then no amount of teaching about character will have any meaningful impact.
These are, broadly speaking, our primary measures in trying to develop the character of those in our care. If we can triangulate students’ virtue literacy with formative experiences and role models that can inspire, then perhaps we will have helped shape people who are part of a better story.