Independent School Essential—
Character Education
Brendan J. O’Shea, M.S., M.Ed.


Devoting time and resources is one reason families choose to enroll
ndependent schools across the country vary in numerous ways, including size, location, mission, and curriculum among many others. Each independent school takes on its own personality and culture. This is implied by the term independent. While independent schools across the country are unique, they typically share two important attributes: a focus on academic growth and success as well as a commitment to the development of sound character in each individual student. Independent schools have always maintained an emphasis on character development. While schools differ in their approach to character education, they remain completely committed to developing young people of integrity. Through changing times, cultures, economies, and trends, independent schools have not veered from their emphasis on academic excellence and character development. While the approach may have varied as the years have passed, the intentional focus on developing boys and girls of sound character has never waned.
A key ingredient to developing sound character is self-discipline. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, self-discipline can be defined as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement.” Isn’t that what education is all about? Learning from your mistakes? Adjusting to the challenges before you? Persevering until the end? Striving to be the best you can be?
Oddly enough, today’s world is heading in a direction where self-discipline is hardly necessary. Hungry? There are millions of fast food outlets available to you. Need information? Check out the information superhighway, otherwise known as the Internet. Want to get in touch with someone? Text them and expect an immediate response. We’ve become an impatient nation, expecting our every whim to be satisfied immediately. Compared to children from decades past, today’s boys and girls don’t want to wait for anything. Yet, we really can’t blame our children for their incessant need for immediate satisfaction. After all, we’re responsible for letting them develop in this manner. We’ve given them all the tools they need to be impatient and, more than likely, we’ve set a poor example for them to follow. We eat “instant oatmeal”, watch movies “on demand”, and get irritable when we have to wait in line or traffic.
The art of waiting patiently has become a lost art. The need for instant gratification has overwhelmed each of us at some point. Want an interesting and thought-provoking read? Take the time to peruse In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré. Doing so will open your eyes to the quick pace at which you lead your life and how it affects those around you. Making some subtle changes can prove beneficial to you, your family and colleagues. It may also help you develop patience and self-discipline in those around you. Students will benefit from some of the tips presented in the book.
At a gathering of parents several years ago, I suggested that parents intentionally miss a couple of their children’s athletic contests in the coming season. Many parents stared back in disbelief, not believing I could suggest such an action. My point in doing so was to ensure that students understood that the world doesn’t revolve around their schedules, their pursuits, their activities and their world. A portion of self-discipline is learning how to accomplish tasks on your own. Students who have to motivate themselves for an upcoming game, performance or study session develop the self-discipline it will take for them to be successful when they are on their own. Children won’t always have parents cheering from the sidelines, so developing independence and self-discipline at an early age will be allow them to grow in character.
Educators widely believe that setting the bar high for students leads to increased achievement. This applies not only in a purely academic scenario; it applies in the area of citizenship and character development as well. Setting high standards for academic work as well as everyday behavior sends a clear message to the school community - students at independent schools are expected to work hard, play hard, treat others with respect and develop responsible habits. In short, students are expected to continually strive for improvement; to be self-disciplined.
Schools with a clearly articulated and widely accepted mission are best positioned to develop the desired character traits in its students. A clear mission guides school leadership in decision making processes. Character education should be a part of an independent school’s everyday curriculum. Teachers should emphasize character development by incorporating responsibility, integrity and respect for others in regular discussions with their students. “Mission Accomplished” accolades can be awarded to students who have demonstrated a complete understanding of the mission through their actions.
Developing a character curriculum that is effective and resonates with students, teachers and parents alike doesn’t need to be overwhelming. You don’t have to invent a comprehensive character curriculum on your own. There are numerous resources available to school communities. A wonderful starting point is Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct by P. M. Forni. A civility lesson is presented in each chapter. Schools can present lessons on a weekly basis over the course of a year or on a monthly basis over several years. When all school constituents embrace the civility lessons and put them to work in their daily lives, welcome changes take place in the school community. If faculty members work continually with students to constantly reinforce civility lessons, student self-discipline improves. In turn, character development goals are met.
Character education through the school cannot be effective unless it is supported in the home. Parents are in partnership with independent schools in many ways, none more important than developing girls and boys of outstanding character. Having parents follow along with their own copy of Choosing Civility in the home is the most efficient way to involve them in the essential process.
Another option for developing a character building curriculum is to use key words for the school community to study over time. A concentrated focus on particular words or phrases over an extended time frame allows the message to sink in. Themes can be developed for a year, a term, a month or a week. Other than civility, we’ve had significant success with terms such as heroes, inclusion, respect, responsibility, honor, and integrity. When members of the school community embrace these terms, the community changes for the better. Involving students of all ages can present their interpretation of these terms to the larger school community.

Devoting time and resources to character education sets independent schools apart and distinguishes them from their counterparts. It is an important component of the overall educational program at independent schools. Students can learn about serving others through community service projects at all grade levels. The emphasis on character education is one of the reasons prospective families choose to enroll at independent schools. It’s also a primary reason independent schools produce such fine young people.

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