As we get ready for a new school year, our minds naturally turn to academics, homework, and all the learning that should take place to move from one grade to the next. Before we jump into the normal back-to-school routine, let’s spend some time thinking together about another equally important aspect of a quality education. If you look closely at the CRSD logo, you will see our mission statement, “Providing a quality education in a rural environment.” Even now as you read this Snippets, that’s what our employees are gearing up to do for the 2015-2016 school year. They are dedicated to the current and future success of our students. This includes, but is not limited to, academics. However, in order for academics to have meaning in a student’s life, it must be accompanied by character.
Before we explore the meaning of character, we should emphasize that last sentence – without character, academic study will have little impact. To visualize the impact of character, let’s imagine that all CRSD students are advanced in every subject area. Every student earns straight A’s, scores high on all achievement tests, and will leave high school fully prepared for college level assignments. Imagine with me that every kindergartner will learn to read without any difficulty. Long-division in fourth grade is a breeze for every student (no tears whatsoever). In junior high, all the students can write well enough to be published in a statewide newspaper. In our dreams, every one of our high school students achieve so highly, they will earn enough scholarships to pay for college. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful vision for our students. However, even if we could make all of the above come true, we would be leaving out what most every parent wants for their child. We would be neglecting something absolutely essential for success and contentment. We would be neglecting character. Without it, all the learning in the world is useless, or even worse, destructive. When we express a desire to provide a quality education, it must include discipline, because character is shaped through self-discipline.
Teachers work hard to develop and implement a great instructional program, yet they know that a student’s character makes all the difference in the learning process. Lesson plans for reading, writing and math are essential, but not enough. Character counts. It matters how we behave (for adults too). Achievement without character is empty and unsatisfying. Achievement through character is lasting, satisfying and full. Failure without character leads to bitterness. Failure with character leads to change. Character makes a difference in our suffering and in our success.
So, what is character? In a world that shuns absolutes, it can be challenging to establish clear principles of right and wrong. For the most part, in our community we are fortunate to have general agreement on the qualities of good character. On many occasions, I have heard our Elders speak forcefully about character and how it was a value in the Ahtna culture long before the mountains were called Drum and Sanford. I have seen community members demonstrate character. For example, when there is a financial need, you can bet someone is cooking spaghetti to raise money to help. Throughout our community, it is evident that the Copper Valley values honesty, hard work, generosity, personal responsibility, kindness, and forgiveness. Of course there are examples of bad character, but even then, an understanding of grace and mercy are demonstrated in our community when we resist casting the first stone.
Character matters, and because it matters, we must do our best to expect good character from our students. I will be directing our Principals to renew their efforts to integrate character education into our academic program. That will include holding students accountable, not just for their school work, but also for their behavior and attitudes. When I walk into a school, I want to see students learning well, and interacting well. I want Copper River School District students to have an edge in the market-place because of their manners. I want our students to be recognized for both their academic achievement and their politeness. I want our students to observe the truth that one reaps what they sow, especially when it comes to respect. Like most parents, I want our students to enjoy an abundant life built upon the benefits of right choices.
This is asking a lot of our Principals and teachers. Being a disciplinarian is hard work and under appreciated. Taking the time to turn a student’s bad choice into a positive lesson takes a lot of time, patience, and confidence. It can be disappointing when the lesson is resisted and motives are questioned. Principals who insist on teaching good character will take some abuse from adults whose own character is lacking. They will be hurt when somehow their efforts to discipline are more severely criticized than the behavior of the students who desperately need loving discipline. Our Principals will be challenged by people who want to excuse poor behavior because of another child’s choices. In seeking to raise the standard of behavior, they will be challenged at every turn, and yet, if character matters, then so does enduring the extra conflict. I will ask our Principals not to be harsh, but to be gracious, firm, and resolute.
In the end, learning character and learning academics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I don’t think one happens without the other. If you learn, it is because you invested the effort. The effort is a reflection of one’s character. If you bomb a test, your character will make all the difference in your response. You’ll either go back and try harder, or move on, just to get through the course. You will either ignore an F or work with your teacher to bring your grade up. You will complete your homework, or cheat, based on your character. Those with good character will say “good morning” when they arrive in the classroom instead of sullenly walking past the teacher. Those who are mindful of their character will be respectful of different cultures. One with quality character will work hard to earn good grades rather than feel entitled to good grades.
For all of us, character matters when we use our math to give the correct change. Character matters when we write an email that includes information about another person. Character matters when we study history and apply its lessons to current political problems. Character matters when we study science and use new discoveries to ask questions of modern medicine. And especially for we Alaskans, character will matter in how we face our economic challenges, just as it mattered when we enjoyed rich harvests of revenue from higher oil prices.
In the coming school year, I hope you’ll support our students by expecting the best from them, not only in academics, but also in character. A student’s basic sense of right and wrong comes from the nurture and example they get from their family at home. Teachers can support families by demonstrating the values that produce good character. If you agree that character counts, please email your school Principal and let them know they have your support. Offer suggestions, volunteer to help teach character lessons, and most of all, be an example of good character for our students.
The truth is, the students in our schools already show qualities of good character. The Copper River School District is blessed with wonderful students. Come to a sporting event, visit a classroom and attend a concert and you’ll see for yourself how fortunate we are. Our focus on character this year is not a reaction to problematic behavior, it is our responsibility to each and every amazing CRSD student and his or her enormous potential.
“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Martin Luther King, Jr.