Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal H. Mayerson Ph.D.

Quite a Character

School Made Easy: Character Education is the Key

Using their VIA strengths, kids co-create a safe, respectful classroom.

Posted Jan 12, 2011

Previously I wrote about Mr. Sharp's 4th grade classroom and the character strength Power Pyramids the students had constructed (Pyramids of Power). Well, I finally had the privilege of actually meeting this group this past week. What a joy.

We were there to film this classroom in action and talk to students, parents, and Mr. Sharp to learn more about what they are doing. Watch video now!  And, as I sat and observed this classroom in action there was a sense of ease all around. Whether interacting with each other, their classroom visitors, or with their teacher, the children had an air of ease. And, when the teacher spontaneously invited an entire classroom of 2nd graders in to learn about character strength from the 4th graders, there was an ease of adjustment and sharing of spaces and hearts.

Ease - what a nice relief for educators! As Mr. Sharp told me, referring to his building a foundation of character strengths education, "Everything becomes easier in the classroom - everything."

As a psychologist, I was of course warmed in my heart to see the educational environment do such a great job of nurturing the whole child. But I tried to adopt, as best I could, a viewpoint of an educator who might think his or her primary role is to teach academic subjects - math, literature, science, etc. Why spend time exploring and learning about character strengths when there is so much "core curriculum" to cover to be properly prepared for the tests the students are required to take? That question was the lens through which I watched and reflected for some of that day.

I realized that at the beginning of each year, a teacher convenes a group of students who will be learning together for the entire year. At that moment in time a culture is born. That culture, as it develops from that moment forward, will have profound effects on everyone's behavior.

A teacher has a choice. The choice is how deliberate to be in setting the features of that culture. What features does the teacher believe will enhance learning and what techniques can be used to cultivate those features? It became clear to me that teaching character strengths is a technique that can effectively establish a culture of learning.

Mr. Sharp started the year with an assertion that "we all have succeeded in arriving to this classroom today" - a fact. In our own rights, we all have successes we can claim. Then he asked, "What aspects of your character have helped you succeed so far?"

That set the stage to establish the following cultural values/premises:
• We are all good the way we are.
• There is a vocabulary we will be learning to describe the various character strengths that we can pick and choose from.
We will be exploring and deploying those character strengths in our learning and interactions with one another.

I quickly observed the following evidence that these cultural expectations were clearly established:
• Students happily asking for and providing help to one another
• Ease of interactions student-to-student and students-to-adults
• Students reporting that they were using "perspective" to help teach second-graders, "persistence "to stick with tasks they didn't like very much, "bravery" to be first to go in front of the daunting cameras, etc.
• Engagement in the classroom activities. No distracted or distracting behaviors.

I believe that when a teacher does not deliberately create a positive classroom culture, the default culture often has these features:
Competition/Comparison - We students are all competing against one another. We teachers use a curve for grading; we give awards to students based on you being better than others at various things; we are preparing you for a competitive world in which you need to be better than others to get jobs, etc.
• Authoritarian - We students are supposed to guide our behavior based on fear of punishment or disapproval of the adults in authority; we teachers are preparing you for a world in which you must abide by rules/laws set by others, regardless of your opinion of those rules.
• Passive objects- We students are supposed to sit and learn what we are told to learn; we are supposed to follow instructions.
• Performance anxiety - We are supposed to be anxious about being able to learn everything you give us to learn and to use that anxiety to study hard so we can do well on our tests of performance; we need to learn to use anxiety as our source of motivation to try hard.

A culture built on articulating and appreciating individual differences among our character strengths seems to lead to the following alternative features of culture:
Collaboration: We all - students and teachers - bring different strengths to the table of learning, and we can use our relationships with one another to help each other learn; I can ask for help from someone who has more strength in that area than I do; we are all fine the way we are - none better or worse than another - just different - and we are all good in different ways; when we grow up, we will be working with others and will need to know how to appreciate everyone's strengths.
• Mutual respect - We all are valued human beings who each deserve complete respect; though we know the teacher is "in charge," we know he/she involves us respectfully in the process of daily decision-making. Based on our experience here, we believe that in society, authority figures should set rules based on human rights.
• Engagement - We are engaged learners; our teacher allows us to express ourselves in our work and when my work is an expression of who I am, I get very involved in it; the classroom is a place where "my flower" continues to unfold and be marveled at by others. I am encouraged to explore - to follow my interests and instincts.
Confidence - I feel confident about myself; I'm not worried about being judged; with a confident stand I can approach subjects that I might otherwise avoid for fear of failure; in life I can face risks that lead to growth.

Which of these two cultures would you rather learn in and teach in? It is a choice. Teaching character strengths is a way to build a culture of collaboration, confidence, mutual respect, and engagement. As a teacher would you want anything less for yourself from your district? Would you want anything less for your own child/student?

It can be done. It IS being done.

Thanks to Mr. Sharp and all of his students for opening my eyes.

(To see the classroom in action, watch this video!)