Teaching for Character
What Can Educators Do?
Sustaining Character Education
in a Time When Funds are Scarce
By Jeri Asaro
School districts are most definitely feeling the impact of the financial crisis that has hit America in the last couple of years. School budgets are being slashed left and right, and positions deemed "unnecessary" are being considered obsolete. Unfortunately, under these conditions, when budgets are prepared, what are considered to be the "extra" programs are the first to go. In some districts, the funding related to social and emotional character development (character education -- CE) may be seriously affected. With the focus on standardized test scores, districts may find it hard to squeeze in funds for CE into the budget. As a firm believer that it is my job to educate the “whole child,” I have serious concerns. Even though CE is not costly to do compared with many other programs, without some funding support the sense of CE as a priority can be lost. In these circumstances, what can we do to sustain and continue to improve our CE efforts? What do we need to keep our classrooms blossoming with good character?
For those of us who are troubled by the changing face of education today, there are a few important concerns of which to be aware. First of all, it is vital to know that consistent with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act one of the six goals of the U. S. Department of Education is to "promote strong character and citizenship among our nation's youth" (Strategic Plan 2002-2007)." However, the Department of Education has slashed CE funding. Twelve important programs are among those to be terminated in the 2011 federal budget. They range from grant opportunities to mentoring programs to programs that support substance abuse prevention, physical education, counseling, and civics. These cuts filter down to the state level. For example, the 2009-10 school year is the last year for Title IV funds to school districts that support prevention and intervention programs. The idea behind the cuts is to put the money towards closing the achievement gap, but the emotional, social, and moral qualities of a person should be considered just as important and valuable educational goals as passing a standardized test. Teachers are caught in the middle. It is expected and necessary for our classrooms to offer multiple opportunities for students to discuss and act out positive social behaviors. But, how do we squeeze it in, and how are school districts expected to support the ideas of CE if there are not additional funds to help? If you feel the same strong sentiment toward CE that I feel, it is time to understand that it can all begin with you.
When it comes right down to it -- the world begins behind the closed doors of our teaching spaces. As an individual and a professional, you need to determine your willingness to design a program around CE, as well as your drive to fight for its needs at the higher level. Through the use of professional learning communities (PLC), the isolation of the classroom is beginning to change. In the state of New Jersey, PLCs are the wave of the future in every school district, and a basic tenant in the N.J. Department of Education’s Professional Standards for Teachers and School Leaders Initiative. In my own school, we meet in PLCs daily, and we use this time to discuss CE initiatives for our students. Often, the ideas require few funds, and open many doors of opportunity for all stakeholders. During one of last week's PLC meetings, we tossed around the idea of bringing together our middle school students with our local retirement community by organizing a tea party. The idea is in the development stage for sure, but it is doable and likely we could ask for both the community and the school's Parent/Teacher organization support to keep the spending to a minimum. PLCs give teachers the opportunity to work interdependently as professionals to achieve common goals. Why not make one of the goals character education?
When it comes to CE, many administrators will be right on board with you, but some will have the attitude that it does not hold the same importance for the district as standardized test scores and the like. What do we need as educators? Support! It is very difficult to take on a leadership role, when there is little support from the top. It is not impossible, but it is difficult. If the school culture is not permeated with the idea of CE, you can begin by asking the administration to create PLC whose sole purpose is infusing school-wide CE. This step would require "release time," but in the financial scheme of a school district, release time is small money in comparison to a stipend or the creation of a new schedule. You might be able to convince your administrators to give this idea a try, when you explain its impact on the whole school community.
When it is the time of year to write curriculum, it is always a good suggestion to make CE part of the curriculum in subtle ways. For example, maybe each grade level could read a particular novel and the lesson planning for that novel could incorporate CE through open-ended responses and the like. Another possibility is service learning. A social studies curriculum could readily incorporate meaningful service, and qualities of citizenship and patriotism within its instruction and reflection practices.
Professional Development (PD) choices is another idea for instilling CE into the school culture. In New Jersey, all districts are required to have Professional Development Committees which are comprised of both teachers and administrators, and teachers have a strong voice in the PD choices. Find the PD committee member from your school and express your interest in learning more ways to infuse CE into the curriculum. Just about any core curriculum subject can find ways to work CE into lesson planning, but teachers might need some fresh ideas to get them jumpstarted. If enough teachers identify this need, and it works with the district and school objectives, the committee is required to take your suggestion and discuss it at their meeting.
A district's Board of Education (BOE) is a resource to get on your side. Keep in mind, these are most often "community volunteers" who want the best for the children of the community. BOE members may have important and useful connections in the community, and beyond, which could help you down the road -- whether it be in the form of a classroom guest speaker or a community grant writer. Does your district already have policies in place to address CE? Are they a part of "Drug-Free School" initiative? If not, it is through policy-making that BOE members can help. Speaking respectfully at a BOE meeting is a great way to be heard. If the district is involved in a Strategic Planning process, infusing CE could easily be considered one of the steps on a school improvement plan. Encourage BOE members to develop a district-wide mission statement that includes CE.
As a whole school project, or a school culture change, a good step is to identify the core ethical values or character traits which should be integrated into the everyday culture. The state regulations actually require school districts to have "school board adopted" core ethical values which are arrived at through a consensual process involving the whole school community. The same thing can be done at the school level as well. To get the whole staff involved, a survey could be generated where teachers vote on the traits they deem the most important. If a "whole school" approach is preferable to the PLC, get the involvement of students as well. Student council is a great place to begin hearing the student voice, and it is this group who will most likely appreciate the possibility of changing a school climate. Once a final decision is made, involving the parents and community is key so that students hear a consistent message about character traits, as they are essential in both school and life.
There is no single idea that will start or sustain an effective CE program. As I said before, it all begins with YOU. Once the door opens, and you begin to build a consensus for the need of including it in your school community, you can only hope that all stakeholders will take notice and join the all-important bandwagon with you. The African proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child" comes to mind for me. It may take a village, but one person can make a difference. I encourage you to have to strength and daring to push the members of your school community in the right direction towards educating the whole child and not just a child that can pass a standardized test. If you can get others on board with you, the school climate will improve because members of the school community will be working together with one vision and one focus. Along the way, do not forget the valuable internet resources which are available. This website offers a set of resources to get you started: http://www.rucharacter.org/page/pd_tips_checklist/.
Character education does not amount to simply a lesson or course, a quick-fix program, or a slogan posted on the wall. It is an integral part of school life. With intentional, thoughtful character education, schools can become communities in which virtues such as responsibility, hard work, honesty and kindness are taught, expected, celebrated and continually practiced (Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character).
Read Jeri's first article: Character Education - The Backbone of Your Classroom