Have you thought about ways to help cultivate the character of your middle and high school students? If you consider social and emotional learning skills as the engine that enables accomplishment, you might want to look at character as the steering wheel that gives kids a sense of direction.
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Might character be as worthy of our attention as academics, civic competencies, and artistic literacy—and perhaps be connected to all three?
I recently heard Eliot Malomet, a rabbi in New Jersey, pose a compelling analogy. He said that when we go for a medical exam our vital signs are typically assessed through measures of body temperature, pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels. In a society marked with so much activity, but lacking depth and focus, Rabbi Malomet then speculated on a measurement of people’s sense of fulfillment, identifying five vital signs: contentment/joy, hope, awe, meaning/purpose, and deep connection.
Five Signs of Fulfillment
I believe these five vital signs can help us guide youths toward positive fulfillment. I have put them in the form of questions that you can present to your students (and to yourself). I’ve also included scales you might use as informal metrics and as guidance for improving each area:
1. Contentment and Joy
How much do you experience both joy and satisfaction in your life? (5) almost constant; (4) most of the time; (3) half of the time; (2) some of the time; (1) almost never
Guidance: This is deceptively simple. Many people agree that we are content when our lives are going reasonably well and when we are being of service to others—family, classmates, colleagues, the community, and even strangers. But we also need some joy in our lives—moments that light us up and bring us smiles. This kind of joy comes from celebrating positive events with people we cherish.
To what extent do you look ahead in your life with optimism, positive expectation, and anticipation of accomplishment? (5) almost always; (4) most of the time; (3) half of the time; (2) some of the time; (1) almost never
Guidance: When youths are pessimistic, see little chance of reaching positive goals, and feel hopeless, we cannot expect to see their best efforts at learning or good behavior. We must work with their strengths and teach them to set and reach small goals so they can build a hopeful sense of accomplishment.
How often do you experience a sense of wonder, amazement, and astonishment? (5) several times recently; (4) once recently; (3) once in the past month; (2) once in the past year; (1) almost never
Guidance: We need to lift our students’ horizons by helping them appreciate the wonder around them: the miracle of a rainbow, a sunrise, how our bodies function, and the amazing ingenuity and goodness some people display. Even when life is difficult, a sense of awe helps us keep going. It can shift our perspective in ways that allow our thoughts and feelings to soar. Experiencing awe and wonder must be more than an annual event for our youths (and for adults).
4. Meaning/Purpose in Life
Can you point to things in your life that give you positive meaning and purpose? (5) definitely yes, more than one; (4) maybe one thing; (3) not sure; (2) only in the past; (1) never
Guidance: I call out positive because research tells us that when some youths are not able to see pathways to prosocial purposes, they shift to antisocial ones. Having a sense of purpose and meaning is linked with fulfillment and is a normal sign of health. Because its absence is unsettling to individuals, it is not surprising to see youths and older people choose a negative purpose over no purpose. Consider why some children actively seek the role of class clown or bully.
5. Deep Connection
When do you have a sense that you are connected to something, or someone, bigger than yourself? (5) all the time; (4) most of the time; (3) some of the time; (2) a little of the time; (1) never
Guidance: Rachael Kessler made it clear in The Soul of Education that connecting to something greater than oneself is a desirable part of development, especially in adolescence. It fuels idealism, learning, adventure, leaving comfort zones, and other actions that give youths energy and seem to make them feel as if their capacity and potential are limitless. It also tides them over in times of difficulty.
Cultivating a Sense of Fulfillment
All five of these areas—contentment/joy, hope, awe, meaning/purpose, and deep connection—are related to one another. Cultivating even one of these in youths can help advance the others when they are lacking. Our schools need to be places of inspiration where social and emotional learning and character development are engaged intentionally and as often as academics.