In David Brooks’s article, “Why Are Americans So Mean?”, he states, “The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” Over my time as an educator working with children in their most formative years, I have felt an increasing urgency to focus on that same simple objective: developing foundational character traits like kindness.
This goal inspired me to consistently explore what attributes students must learn to not only be constructive members of society but to also have a fulfilling life of growth and purpose. This inquiry, influenced by the collaborative work of the Character Task Force as well as many insightful writers like Brooks, ultimately led to the five traits outlined in the Character and Community Framework–curiosity, empathy, agency, adaptability, and responsibility.
Determining those five characteristics was simply the first step. Next came an even more challenging one–coming up with an intentional method to unite our entire community in the act of fostering them. Richard Weissbourd, who visited Graland last year for a Parent Education Network (PEN) event, provided insights on how to do just that. As I prepared to introduce him, I was captivated by his idea of reflective adult role modeling. He emphasizes that if we want children to build strong character, we need to do more than just tell them about important principles. We need to show them how to live by those principles. In his book, “The Parents We Mean to Be,” Weissbourd asserts, “The problem is (not teaching values): it is actually living by values, such as fairness, caring, and responsibility, day to day.” The best way to ensure students live a life of strong character is to role model. Madeline Levine, one of the co-founders of Challenge Success, reinforces Weissbourd’s advice in her book “Ready or Not,” writing, “For the most part, values are caught not taught. We have to give our kids the opportunity to catch values by observing us putting into action what values mean.” Levine then punctuates our pressing collective responsibility to younger generations, “There is no ‘resilience gene.’ The ability to make it through challenges and rapid change is taught by parents, educators, and the environment.” Both of these impactful authors affirm our efforts to focus our adult community on role-modeling character competencies and preparing children for both the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly evolving world.
In the aforementioned article, David Brooks outlines how to foster character traits by referencing Iris Murdoch’s “best modern approach to building character” from her work, “The Sovereignty of Good.” He summarizes her insight that “a moral life is something that goes on continually–treating people considerately in the complex situations of daily existence.” Brooks recounts that she advocates that we build stronger character “as we learn to see others deeply, as we learn to envelop others in the kind of patient, caring regard that makes them feel seen, heard, and understood.” When Richard Weissbourd discusses the difference between children parroting back what is right and doing what is right, he also stresses this type of care for others: “The issue isn’t moral literacy; it’s moral motivation. There is one capacity that is at the heart of such motivation–appreciation, the capacity to know and value others, including those different in background and perspective.” This type of curiosity and empathy is critical for us to achieve our mission to build strong character, follow our guiding principle to build community, and realize our strategic goal to cultivate a culture of belonging.
Madeline Levine, in “Ready or Not,” also emphasizes “the pressing need for moral clarity, as well as how to incorporate a more robust sense of community for us all.” Throughout her work, she explores this connection between character and community. “Values don’t live in a vacuum. They are behaviors: the way we interact with people face-to-face and the actions we take that we know will affect them. Values take on weight and meaning in the real world, in our community.” The “Together We Thrive” initiative this year honors this insight by asking each of us to live by the School’s guiding principles through specific behaviors and, in doing so, role model and foster the five essential attributes to thrive. Though Levine writes about slightly different attributes in her work, she still stresses, “We can teach these attributes by example, by repetition, and through conversation, adjusting our message as our child’s capacity for understanding grows.” The Character and Community coasters we sent out earlier this fall to families hope to inspire those conversations about the behaviors that reflect the principles of our School.
The first line of the Character and Community Commitment we shared this fall demonstrates what I believe binds educators, parents, and caregivers together: “Our community thrives when we put children first.” By putting children first and truly asking ourselves, “What is best for kids?” we unite in the common purpose of fostering intellectual excellence and strong character so that our graduates become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders. Richard Weissbourd captures this child-first unifying principle well, “In the strongest relationships, parents and teachers mentor each other and achieve something wonderful–a kind of pure focus, uncluttered by their own issues and agendas, on the needs and interests of a child.” As I consider the over two decades that I have been part of Graland and its nearly hundred-year history, I am confident that we can maintain that collective focus on the children and continue to reinforce our tradition of being a mission and principle-driven community by following specific norms of behavior that will bring us together. I strongly believe that “Together We Thrive.”