Character in Schools

By Shirley K. Fegan

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We have all undoubtedly heard this saying before. So much so, in fact, that it has become somewhat of a cliché. Still, there is truth and beauty in its simplicity, as is evident every time I see a child or adult receive that message from a parent, educator, friend, or colleague. These words hit a nerve and always make sense.

We all strive to achieve a certain level of goodness, and there appears to be an innate moral fiber within us all. Still, it is our responsibility, as those who guide and educate the adults of tomorrow, to make sure that each child acknowledges the existence of his or her character. We must ensure that our children listen to their consciences in order to further understand and develop ethical and moral reasoning.

What is character, and how do schools help develop it? Character refers to the emotional, intellectual, and moral qualities of a person or group of people as well as the demonstration of these qualities in life. Positive character traits are something everyone should develop. Establishing good character is the responsibility of the community which includes families, schools, service groups, and religious institutions.

Character education is based on the premise that teaching character is essential for the success of a democratic society. It upholds the ideals of respect, fairness, justice, consideration, and community service. Character education helps the student develop the ethical, social, and academic understanding of himself and others, thus making schools an obvious place to help students develop their values. However, when teaching character education, whose values and truths should be taught? Is there a common standard of rights and wrongs? Who will be responsible for teaching the children about character?

In the home, family values are learned and practiced daily in the routines and rituals of the family. They are taught by discussion, practice, and role modeling. Most children receive their character education at home, but this foundation is then strengthened at the community level, primarily in schools, and further through areas such as service groups and religious institutions.

Most character education curricula in schools typically teachs the universal values of compassion, honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and good citizenship. These are considered global values because they hold up in all countries across all demographics. There is no one correct educational plan for developing good character rather there are many different educational approaches. Thus, schools take different approaches and use different models in trying to ensure the emotional and social growth of the students entrusted to their care.

Effective programs have and use guidelines which help the educating institution consciously and consistently teach and enforce established expectations to the student body. These programs include a comprehensive, proactive, intentional, evidence-based approach. These programs may include core values such as the Character Counts program. The character model includes how an individual thinks, behaves, and feels. Children develop internal motivations, a caring of community, and a responsibility of all to live and practice good character. Effective programs also foster a desire to teach, learn, model, and advocate character education. They encourage the “school community” to share in the active education of character building and to evaluate programs based on their effectiveness in the school community. Throughout, these programs utilize the same modality of discussion, practice, and role modeling seen in the home model.

The people who teach the programs are teachers, administrators, bus drivers, building service people, students, and the parents. Everyone is an educator in an effective character program. The typical lesson doesn’t always take place in the classroom. It can be found in the lunchroom, on the school bus, or in the gymnasium. It is found anywhere that one’s decision making skills can be put to the test. The charge to the schools is to help students understand how to use those universal values as the basis for moral decision making. As students enter into adolescence and begin to face ethical dilemmas, they have to learn how to apply their basic values and learned principles into more complex situations where the right choice is not always obvious.

Basically, it all comes back to that golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and those sayings you learned years ago in school such as “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Developing character in schools always seems to come full circle no matter what the educational curriculum as long as there are good guidelines to follow.

Shirley K. Fegan is Head of School at The Congressional Schools of Virginia. This school enrolls students from preschool through grade 8 at its campus in Falls Church, Virginia. For more information, visit the school’s website


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