Making "Character Education" A Priority

As American parents, we claim that education is a priority. But is American education really a priority or merely a value that we pay empty lip service to? Schools across the country continue to be ...

Print Email

As American parents, we claim that education is a priority. But is American education really a priority or merely a value that we pay empty lip service to? Schools across the country continue to be tortured by the media and half-heartedly supported by government and our leaders.

However, as I continue to be invited to speak in public high schools around the Northeast, I am amazed at what many committed administrators and creative teachers are doing on behalf of students.

Recently I gave a full school assembly at a large public high school in Nassau County. The assembly took place at the beginning of the day. After the pledge and the morning announcements, a senior from their student senate read a positive, upbeat quote to set the tone for their school day. This is a new practice as part of this high school's commitment to building "character education." In addition to the public reading of a positive quote, the Social Studies and English teachers rotate having their students write a brief reaction on the quote of the day. According to the Assistant Principal, a growing number of teachers are taking a few minutes with their first class of the day to discuss the quote of the day.

Initially there was some resistance to this practice, but as teachers started to talk about the positive reaction they were receiving in their classes, the resistance dwindled. Teachers, like students, are uncomfortable with any kind of change.

Being curious about this new technique, I asked the Assistant Principal a million questions. I was really impressed with their courage to address such an important issue like character and integrity. How could anyone oppose such a positive strategy? I asked after eight months of utilizing this approach to begin the school day, had she noticed any real changes within the student body? She was candid and said that in many ways it is still too early to tell. However, she did say that students and teachers believe that the school day begins in a much more positive way, with little or no tension.

It has also sparked some very interesting conversations in classes where the quote of the day has been discussed. As one student said, it has forced him to look at things that are important that he was purposefully ignoring. Confronting those issues in a positive forum for him was a very helpful experience.

Hopefully, the Chancellor and the Board of Regents will see the value of "character education" and make it a priority initiative. It potentially provides countless opportunities for addressing some very sensitive issues in a very positive way.

Some schools around the state are already making a valiant effort to incorporate "character education" into their curriculums. However, that initiative cannot be encouraged in a vacuum. If it is, then we are setting it up for failure.

We also have to face the fact that traditional, four-year high school education does not work for all, even with our BOCES opportunities. Too many students see BOCES as a punishment for failure or poor behavior. On the contrary, most BOCES programs provide an invaluable opportunity to have hands-on training in a wide range of very specialized fields. Thus, high school graduates are empowered to enter the work force with some well-developed technical skills in a variety of very marketable fields.

What about the bright, very talented student who is failing everything? He is not interested in sports or extra-curricular activities. He has a career path that is noble. He knows what he needs to do to get there, but lacks the internal motivation to move forward.

His parents are very pro-school. Both parents are teachers. That is both a blessing and a curse. TJ thinks they are too controlling and overbearing. His Mom is on him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He feels they cut him no slack. He is a junior in high school on a regents track. Up until his sophomore year, he was an honor student. Life changed drastically from sophomore summer to the fall term of junior year. TJ admits that it is true, but is at a loss for words to pinpoint why. Mom, on the other hand, believes it was a shift in TJ's friends. According to his parents, and TJ agrees, they are all non-students, just interested in hanging out and partying.

So what does a parent do with a junior in high school with unlimited academic potential, who is failing everything with the exception of Gym and Social Studies? He is respectful, cooperative and does not cut class. All of his teachers have the same refrain, "if he would only pay attention in class and hand in his homework, he would be fine."

Unfortunately, TJ is very content with possibly being on the five-year plan for a high school diploma. Mom and Dad are not as content. As a matter of fact, Dad went ballistic when TJ recently communicated his satisfaction with mediocrity and indifference.

As I have said many times in this space, school is a gift that should be utilized appropriately. I think when your son or daughter reaches junior and/or senior year in high school, they know exactly what they are doing or not doing. Thus, they need to be held accountable and not be rescued, enabled or cut a deal. If you fail, you fail. You have made those choices yourself. No one holds you hostage from doing homework. No one ties you up and makes you cut class. You do all of that with your own free will.

If a high school student has reached the legal age (which is ridiculous in this state, but that's material for another article) to sign out of school, and if he or she is not doing the minimum then I believe the student has lost the gift of a traditional education. There are many other non-conventional roads to a high school diploma.

Maybe TJ should drop out of school. If he has to get a forty-hour a week full time job as a high school drop out, maybe he will appreciate the gift he has lost.

On a good day, with a high school diploma, it is not easy getting a full time job. It is ten times more difficult without a diploma. But, to some teenagers the grass always looks greener on the other side, until you get there.

When dropping out was proposed, TJ was not happy and his parents were not thrilled. Candidly, they were all taken back.

There are many roads that lead to a high school diploma. A GED is one, going to Suffolk Community College is another. If a student is motivated enough, he will complete his education one way or another.

A GED is not a dead end. It is not a ticket to Harvard, but a potential entrance into SUNY Stony Brook, Dowling and St. Joseph's (depending on other criteria).

TJ was taken back. He says he is motivated to graduate on time. His parents are going to back off as long as he doesn't cut or act out in class.

Time will tell if TJ is disciplined enough to do the right thing. Hopefully, he will succeed and not just log in time and pass by the skin of his teeth, but really get an education so that he can make a positive contribution to our world.