Character education: Engaging school staff

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Photo: MA Education

Continuing his regular series in SecEd, expert Matt Bawden considers how we can engage staff in delivering effective character education

“We believe teachers can support pupil outcomes by developing their character, as well as developing their knowledge, understanding and skills. As such, new teachers should be introduced to character education and strategies for developing characteristics such as drive, grit and optimism in pupils as well as supporting pupil wellbeing.”
Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training, January 2015

The vast majority of teachers begin their careers wishing to make a real and lasting difference to students’ lives. For many, this difference arises from a deep commitment to their subject area or to pastoral provision.

Research by Professor James Arthur et al in 2015 shows that people enter the teaching profession from a desire to make a difference to children’s lives and to develop good people.

Recently, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility and the Carter Review both called for character education to form part of on-going teacher education. The Teaching Standards also make it clear that teachers must make the education of their pupils their first concern and that they are accountable for achieving the highest possible standards in their conduct.

There is a lot of current debate over how much our character development is caught, and how much taught. In schools the division is often not that simple. Interactions between staff and students often offer a mix of caught and taught opportunities. A student waiting quietly for two staff to finish a conversation so she can ask something is catching such development through the way the staff model their behaviour.

She is also presenting an opportunity to be told how patient she was, and why this matters. Yes she will learn from their example, but she will learn more from having the experience signposted and made explicit. Some staff will always see character education as something we just do.

Indeed, many have commented that this is “just good teaching”, and they are right. However it never hurts to explore “good teaching” and build a sense of pedagogy around it.

A recent study by The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, The Good Teacher, highlighted “the shift in educational emphasis from character to technical competency and subject knowledge, and from teacher professionalism to accountability”. As a result the authors recommend realignment with the “core values” of good teaching.

Very few staff might ever suggest intellectual and vocational integrity are anything but essential in a good teacher. Indeed they are actually likely to take this a step further and see such virtues as essential in a good student.

However, the achievement of such virtues cannot happen in a vacuum. There need to be other qualities present for the student to succeed. These are in our schools regardless of whether we see them.

As staff we encourage students to be open about mistakes, we reward them for independent thought, and praise the learner who makes extra effort. In fact, presented with any list of virtues we tend to be able to point to them somewhere and at sometime.

What we are doing with character education is to draw them in to the light, and once they are there to harness them and develop them, enabling us to help our students flourish in a range of situations. Anna Jepson, from Aldercar High School in Nottinghamshire, makes this link clear: “Make it seem worthwhile to them (staff) – what are they going to get out of it, what are the benefits? For example, teachers struggling with behaviour can use examples from character education to explain the need to settle and engage.”

This connection, between teacher and student flourishing, has been made time and time again during our current Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project. The Jubilee Centre is working with teachers from 28 schools to develop materials for 14 subjects across the curriculum. The materials are really interesting in themselves, but it is most worth noting the positive effects staff felt from devising and trialling them.

Many report how focusing on a range of key character qualities affected class behaviour and attitudes to learning. They also report probable long-term positive effects on attainment, employment and other whole-school improvements.

When we began this project, we set ourselves three evaluation questions. These revolved around the ease to which staff and students might use the materials and the impact they would have on whole-school priorities.

As Ms Jepson said, it is important staff can see why they should do these things. Sometimes character education materials help with aspiration and behaviour in a classroom, at other times they have an impact on the school climate at breaks and lunch, or perhaps have a lasting impact on employability and school relationships. Most importantly they enable the student to flourish.

It is all too easy to see these often instrumental effects of focused character education as the main reason for staff buy-in. Even parents and employers might initially see the growth of resilience and motivation as of prime importance as students seek qualifications, and we seek better behaviour.

In these cases character is often equated with soft-skills, with what can amount to arbitrary methods of judging correct approaches to any of these key character qualities. A non-instrumental approach sees the acquisition of these qualities as a subset of our personalities, focused more on moral virtues such as honesty and compassion.

With such a non-instrumental approach “flourishing” can be said to depend on an appropriate balance of qualities, something we at the Jubilee Centre see as arising from phronesis or “good sense”. The contention is that in focusing on a person’s moral life we also affect their performance, whereas focusing on performance does not guarantee the moral.

Having visited a lot of great schools in the last few months it became clear how focusing on key character qualities such as honesty, respect, drive, or conscientiousness has a tangible impact on aspiration and behaviour in the classroom. Several teachers note a real sea-change in the way their students view the subject and how they act in the room as a result. Each of our teachers on the project used the caterpillar process already outlined in these pages (Character education: A Caterpillar Process, SecEd, November 2015 – link below) to draw students in to thinking about their characters and this engaged them in ways the usual scheme might not normally address.

Chris Drake, from the Winston Churchill School in Woking, found this with an excellent set of music resources exploring Stomp to elicit community spirit and neighbourliness. When speaking to his students they came across as more reflective. They could see how music engaged them with their “selves” in a meaningful manner. They were also keen to demonstrate these two chosen qualities in group work, and to transfer them to other subjects and their lives around school. This was largely due to their having connected the two key character qualities to their selves.

Staff will quite rightly only place value in character education when it has an impact on what they see as the purpose of school life. For many this will be around acquisition of knowledge and understanding, for others it will centre on personal and social growth and wellbeing.

Whatever the reason, the teacher’s first experiences are vital. However we introduce character education it needs to be seen as helpful and straightforward. Some of the benefits can be drawn from what happens in class and in school, others from the buy-in of students, governors, parents, and the community.

In the next article, I will explore the involvement of such stakeholders before going on to look at a wider strategy for involving everyone, painlessly, in a school-wide strategy.

  • Matt Bawden is teacher-in-residence at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. Visit www.jubileecentre.ac.uk

Further information

Character education series

The next article in this series will be out in February. To read previous articles in this series and for SecEd’s other best practice articles relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv


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