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Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Teach Character in the Classroom and Online

Students benefit from working with their teachers to develop core tenets that guide their behavior in school and at home.

January 27, 2021
Adult woman on laptop at home on video call.
Drazen_ / iStock

Good teaching involves character building. I find myself worrying as much about students’ hearts as I do about their minds—or their grades, for that matter.

Parents have shared with me that they do too, like never before. As I spoke with families when the virtual adventure began, I asked each one what I could do to help during this trying time. The number one answer? Teach children to be mature and independent. As one parent put it, “Mr. Courtney, can you teach him to be good while I’m busy?”

As usual, parents know what their children need: character.

Why Character Education Matters

In her book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, educational psychologist Michele Borba describes a rise in narcissism (which others call a pandemic of a different sort) in stark detail for us. She says that the narcissism index (nationwide scores of self-reported narcissism) has risen steeply in past decades and is at an all-time high. This rise is most pronounced among young people.

There are many guesses among researchers, educators, and parents alike as to why this is happening, but perhaps this question posed by Borba points out the most obvious explanation: “We take our kids to many practices, sports, music, etc. But do they practice being a good person?”

At a time when even basic interaction with others is severely limited, our children need that practice—and it works. Research shows that in the face of a crisis of character, character education matters because it teaches students “to be tomorrow’s leaders in government and work places, and successful and productive members of society.” Moreover, quality character education that weaves in influence from various stakeholders (e.g., school staff, parents, and community members) has a positive effect on academics, attendance, and discipline.

Getting Started

Remote teaching has introduced new jumping-off points for discussions about character—e.g., “Why shouldn’t kids spam the chat during the math lesson? Because it’s not respectful to other learners.” But in general, my online character education looks much the same as it does in a classroom.

I always start by asking students what they want to see from peers and what they want to see in themselves. We then create (and maintain) a categorized chart where, similar to a word sort, we group similar examples. For example, if students say they want to see their peers use appropriate language or to be mannerly, those values land under a banner labeled “Respect.” Other values surface as we talk, like wanting the class to be a place where people do not lie about turning in work or do not misbehave when the teacher’s internet connection freezes. With little prompting, students label these detailed points as “Honesty.”

After reviewing what students have shared, we have a set of categories or terms that everyone is familiar with. In my classroom, we call these terms “tenets,” from the Latin verb tenere—“to have.” In my class, seven tenets typically evolve and are labeled: Honesty, Integrity, Self-Control, Respect, Perseverance, Kindness, and Courage. Much as the words themselves are somewhat predictable, the students define the tenets that become the norms for the classroom—no matter if it’s virtual or brick-and-mortar.

I create a rubric or use success criteria so that students can reflect and check in with me through a weekly letter. Students determine which tenets they are most proud of and which they’d like to improve in. Often students categorize multiple areas of concern under one tenet, such as Perseverance; without the framework of the tenets, they might have identified themselves as “bad” or, even worse, “not smart.”

Invite Friends, Family, and Role Models

Children are inundated by what is on their screens telling them what is important, what it means to be a boy or a girl, who is pretty, and who is smart. Too often, our children see their identities defined in ways that leave many feeling marginalized and traumatized. To help counter this, teachers need to teach values in a culturally responsive way. Using culturally responsive pedagogy, teachers can rely on students’ own funds of knowledge about what being a good person means to them. I have found that when it comes to teaching character education in a way that is infused with cultural relevance, parents are the best resource.

I realized how powerful parents are as a resource accidentally. My student Jacob demonstrates some of the most incredible integrity for a person of any age. One day, as his mother was walking by on-screen, I asked her if she would like to talk to us about the word integrity. She was happy to and explained how hard she worked for her children—and how much she relied on them to be good students while she was away. On-screen, she introduced her entire family and shared how much each member trusted Jacob.

Soon other parents were joining my class to speak about character. I am both grateful to and proud of how the parents of the students I teach have stepped up to help educate our class about what it means to be a decent human being.

Use Role-Play

In breakout groups, kids in my class practice situations of the day or of the week. With our tenets (Respect, Honesty, etc.) in mind, students strategize to solve a lifelike problem. It’s easy to suggest ideas right now, especially after calls with frustrated parents. One mother wanted her son to show kindness to his grandmother, who would be taking care of him during the day. Others were concerned about their children playing video games while their cameras were turned off. I created in-class role-play scenarios for each concern I heard from parents. Students took on roles of parents, and in breakout rooms they role-played using good character. Kids love to practice being a parent or an older sibling in these interactions, and they also love to practice doing the right thing with a skill that they are in the midst of consciously developing.

Through role-play, kids can safely talk about what is right or wrong using terms—and tenets—that are central to good character in a fun way that also stimulates engagement with one another.

Call It Out and Practice It

Transfer in any lesson is key. As soon as my class collectively understands what good character looks and feels like, I call it out and consciously, explicitly practice it too. Sometimes I start the day with collective goals based on prior understandings. I ask the students in our morning poll what they want to practice and what they want to see. I offer them opportunities to self-reflect in short responses, or I use a rubric that specifies what good character looks like based on the kids’ own definitions.

For example, just last week we were discussing how using inspiring words in the chat was an example of kindness and how it made others feel. We added this to our Kindness rubric as a demonstration of the term. Since then, our chat has been loaded with compliments after someone shares. Not surprisingly, this has led to more of them sharing as well. Equally as important, I assign kids “character homework” and have them report on acts of respect or kindness the next morning. I share kid-constructed tenets with families via “refrigerator papers” and remind them to discuss the tenets at home so that they get reinforced. Often a parent, at my invitation, will pop into class and share how their child is being kind or respectful and what that looks like in their home.

When we teach good character explicitly, we see real and lasting change in our students and their future selves. I first developed my own tenets in a karate program. But after my black belt test, my instructor reminded me that the character I had come to embody was there, no matter whether I wore the belt or not. That’s how character should be taught: that it’s there, whether kids are in class or not.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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