What's Happening in Character Education?

From Classroom Rules to Class Promises—How Core Values Set the Foundation

Posted by Dara Feldman on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 @ 12:08 PM

Dara FeldmanMy last year as a classroom teacher, I finally got it! Making a list of rules, even if they were written in a positive way, was not the way to start the year off right.

At the kindergarten parent meeting, which was held the day before school started, I read the book Inch and Miles to the parents and guardians of my incoming kindergarteners. Inch and Miles is Coach John Wooden’s "Success Pyramid for Kids." I then asked the adults to describe what success in kindergarten would like for their child. Instead of talking about learning to read or to do math, they said things such as, their child would be excited to come to school (Enthusiasm), they would do their best work (Excellence) and they would play well with others (Cooperation).

Then on the first day of school, I read the book Inch and Miles to my students. We chose Coach Wooden’s core values as the ones we would live by. We sang a chant every morning which helped us to be mindful of the virtues we wanted to live by. However, these were in addition to the class rules that adorned the classroom. You know, the usual, “We will keep our hands, feet and objects to ourselves,” and so on. At first, I continued to focus on these rules in any disciplinary situation.

As the year continued, I learned about the strategies of The Virtues Project, and began following its first strategy: Speaking the Language of Virtues. I would state a virtue and describe the evidence I witnessed. For example, “I see your determination working through that hard task without giving up.” This was quite a contrast to my usual exhortation: “Come on, I know you can do it.” Speaking the language of virtues helped my students realize their inherent value. It also helped them to understand that these character qualities were life skills they could use in a variety of ways to bring out the best in themselves and others.

In addition to doing our daily success pyramid chant, we did a virtues pick every day. Each morning our student leader would randomly select a virtues card. I would read it to the class and we would discuss ways we could put this virtue into practice. At the end of each day, we debriefed and talked about who demonstrated the daily virtue and how they demonstrated it.

When January came around, the students and I changed our “class rules” to “class promises” and made the virtues the guiding principles for our behavior.

Mrs. Feldman’s Class Promises

We are peaceful with our words and our actions.

We are respectful of people and things.

We are responsible for all we say and do.

We are enthusiastic learners and always work with excellence.

From then on, at the beginning of each class we read our class promises as a way of setting the intention for our day. If a mistaken behavior came up during the day, we could point back to our promise, which was displayed in words and photos, as a way to guide students back to the virtue. We ended each day with a self assessment of how we lived our promise.

I can’t do justice to how powerful focusing on our core values was in terms of creating not only a peaceful classroom community, but also helping my students develop, as Carol Dweck says, a growth mindset. They knew that all things were possible if they used their virtues. Additionally, this practice helped to alleviate the anxiety I felt each morning as I walked into my classroom thinking about how I would handle challenging behaviors in a loving and positive way. 

The class I described in this blog is entering 7th grade this year. Though I still keep in touch with many of my students, one in particular, whose behavior challenged me the most that year until I learned to Speak the Language of the Virtues, is thriving. Whenever I ask him what he thinks is the reason he is doing so well, he always goes back and describes how he strengthened different virtues such as self discipline, purposefulness and patience. Though I was the only teacher who used this language as he progressed through his school, it is so powerful that he never forgot who he truly is.

As the new school year quickly approaches, I encourage all educators to think about what is most important to you and about the kind of environment you wish to create. What values will help you achieve this ideal vision?  What will these values look like in action? What practices will you put into place to revisit and reflect on your core values?

CEP’s Principle 1 states: The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation of good character.

To help you get started with selecting your core virtues, I encourage you to check out this lesson plan, Core Values and What They Mean to Me: http://www.character.org/lessons/lesson-plans/elementary/henry-raab-elementary-school/

Once you identify your core values, it is important to live them daily. So many schools and other organizations spend so much time “writing” their mission statements that they forget to spend time living and reflecting on their core values. What do your core values look like, sound like and feel like throughout the day, personally, professionally and throughout the organization? 

Having everyone know and understand your core values can also help in recognizing teachable moments when discipline issues arise. Hear what the principal of Pierce Elementary School has to say about the benefits of emphasizing core values: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJCUIIRwZzQ

Another great way to get ideas about how to identify, strengthen and live your core values is to attend the CEP Forum which will be held in Washington, DC on Nov. 1-4.

http://www.character.org/conference/

For me, changing my classroom from rules-based to virtues-focused made a world of difference, for my students, for my classroom, and for myself. Best wishes for a great new school year.

This success pyramid comes from Coach Wooden's book Inch and Miles, and can be found on Amazon.Success Pyramid

Learn more from Dara when you register for her webinar on Thursday, August 16, 2012: Living the Promise of Your Core Values.

Topics: school climate, student voice, core values, teachable moments