Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Character Is Not Compliance Out Of Fear’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 01, 2014 7 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series on teaching character. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

John Bennett asked:

I’ve always been a strong believer that an educator cannot TEACH anything - only FACILITATE learning. With regard to character then, my question: What approach to character can an educator take? Even if one decided to try to teach character, can it be done?

Part One in this series including guest responses from Debbie Silver, Jason Flom and David B. Cohen. I also shared some of my own thoughts and concerns.

You might want to listen to my weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio Network podcast. The latest one features Debbie and Jason.

Part Two featured contributions from Maurice J. Elias, Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, Dr. Judith Brough, and Thomas R. Hoerr.

This final post in the series will share a guest response from Lester L. Laminack, educator and author, as well as many comments from readers.

However, before I share those pieces, I’d like to share a Google Ngram I created that might provide food for thought. As I mentioned in Part One, I’m a big supporter of teaching character in the classroom. However, at the same time I’m wary that some “school reformers” are using the recent upsurge of interest in Social Emotional Learning as a way to cry “Let them eat character!” and avoid dealing with other key issues facing educational outcomes, including poverty and adequate financial support for schools.

Out of curiosity, I searched the phrase “teaching character” in Google Ngram, which searches books published over the years. Here is what it showed:

As you can see, “teaching character” appears to peak at two times -- one, at the worst period of the Great Depression and, two, at our recent Great Recession. I don’t like to consider myself too cynical, and I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. It’s just food for thought....

Now, for today’s contributors:

Response From Lester L. Laminack

Lester L. Laminack is a nationally-known literacy expert, a beloved author of numerous books for children and educators, an inspiring presenter and educational consultant, and a highly active member of NCTE. His recent book, Bullying Hurts, co-authored with Reba Wadsworth, shows how read alouds can be used to neutralize bullying behaviors:

It is my view that character is something we demonstrate and develop over time. There are lessons we can teach, books we can share, conversations we can host, but none of it will matter if we are not living exemplars of what we say and ask our students to live out. Children, even the youngest of our students, recognize the disconnect between our words and our actions. In short, integrity is not something we can fake. Our actions and behaviors are the more effective teacher in matters of character. Children learn from our behaviors what a promise means. They learn from our actions and our reactions what it means to be kind and truthful and honorable. They learn from our consistent ways of being what it means to be trustworthy, considerate, empathetic and caring. Our ways of being are, in my view the most powerful instruction we can devise when it comes to developing character.

Developing character is an incremental process, one that takes time, consistency, modeling and conversation. I believe our task begins with living what we expect. We model civil conversations in which all participants listen and respond, initiate and scaffold. We behave with our colleagues in ways we would expect our students to behave for I do not believe we can lead the development of anything in others that is not a basic component of our own belief and behavior.

In my work, I am encouraging teachers across the country to drop the traditional list of rules; the “you can’t...” statements and the “if you do...” threats we find posted on the first day of school. I’m suggesting that in place of those lists we focus on a guiding principle such as this: “In all things be kind and truthful; cause no intentional harm.” This statement focuses on what we expect, what we hold as common behavior in a civil society. It doesn’t suggest the behaviors we want to avoid. It doesn’t imply a punitive system to coerce the behaviors desired by authority. Character is not compliance out of fear, it is a manifestation of core beliefs. Character is how we live every day in every circumstance. The task, then, is to help students develop deeply held beliefs about the value of human dignity, respect for oneself and for others.

Responses From Readers

John Bennett:

I do not believe one can teach character (indeed wonder if we can teach anything really...). The best approach with character involves modeling good character and facilitating open discussions on the importance of good character.

Christine Nagle:

Yes, I strongly believe character education can and should be taught, or facilitated, in schools. I do not believe it is the schools full responsibility, as its all of us adults responsibility supporting today’s youth. But schools are where kids spend most of their time and thus have most interaction with adults following their own parents. I am undecided if character education should be its own class of study, but definitely intertwined in regular communication.


I believe in order to discuss this topic we first need to understand what it is that we mean by character. Alot of the time the judgement of our character is based on our level of social responsibility - how we conform to the norm and contribute to social cohesiveness. But I beg to differ that character is not about how we conform to what is socially acceptable, but rather how personally responsible we are. Character is not built on what we do to impress others e.g. saying thank you and please but more on what we do to take responsibility for ourselves and those around us e.g. making positive choices, standing up for equal rights, reflecting on our own behaviours and actions rather than just doing what we think others want us to do.

When I think of young people in school settings alot of what they are taught is about social responsibility, I would like to see young people being given the opportunities to build their personal character through being given a choice in their education and learning rather than being told what to learn and when. I don’t think you can teach character, I think it has to be explored and discovered by the individual through numerous experiences. I believe social responsiblity can be taught but personal responsibility is based on our own experiences, of which educators may or may not be a part of.

Sue Wells:

I’m the head of school for an independent (non-religious) day school in western Massachusetts. About ten years ago, we instituted a character education program. We have nine character pillars, one for each month. Every month, all of our students -- 3 years old through ninth grade -- focus on a different pillar. Each month, a different grade (1-9) figures out, as a class, the best way to present the pillar to the rest of the school. As they say, you know you’ve learned something when you can teach it.

Many people were skeptical when we instituted our character education program, but even the skeptics have been converted. It has been terrific for our whole community in every way.

The pillars are reinforced constantly in the curriculum, and students are challenged over and over, year after year, to demonstrate them. It’s part of our expectation....

Many readers sent tweets with comments. I’ve collected them with Storify:

Thanks to Lester and to readers for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Look for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.