I walked into the crowded lunchroom with the old familiar hustle of hundreds of teenagers maneuvering their way through lunch lines and awkward social situations. I smiled and plopped myself down at a table and asked them if I could interview them about CharacterStrong and then hit record.
I recently had the amazing privilege of personally visiting several middle and high schools within a large district using our CharacterStrong School-Wide Curriculum. I interviewed over one hundred students and staff in a search to discover what it takes to have a truly CharacterStrong campus. The narrative that unfolded after each interview was one that told a story that was both inspiring and also challenging. Here is what I discovered.
Top 5 Most Important Findings:
Students Want This!
Every single student that I interviewed stated that they believe that teaching kids how to be kind, generous, humble, and considerate is not only important but necessary.
“I think this is really important because when you are our age people forget sometimes to be kind.” -7th grader
“I think it’s helping us become a bigger community, the way I saw high school was I just come here, I get done what I have to get done and then I go home and do what I want, now it’s more like, I’m going to take care of others along the way and help them if they need it rather than just focus on myself.” -Junior.
Students said that the lessons were engaging and interesting and that they wished their teachers would use them in more than just their advisory class.
“It would be better if we did the activities in all our classes and not just homebase.” -8th grader
“Outside of class? Not a ton I feel like definitely we could use it more. It hasn’t been incorporated into our other classes and I feel if we tried that it would be better.” -Junior
I heard these sentiments on every single campus I set foot on. All students agree that this is the direction we should be moving toward in education. They feel the disconnection and long to be connected and it is our job to put those tools in their hands. We continue to work to make that simple for schools to do.
Sometimes The Biggest Obstacle Teachers Need To Get Over Is Our Own Discomfort
At CharacterStrong we have been known to say “Don’t ever expect students to bring more to the classroom than you are bringing as the educator.” My interviews with both students and staff shined a spotlight on this truth that also cast an unintended shadow that limited student potential. There were several instances where I interviewed students and staff and it was obvious that a teacher’s own discomfort or preconceived ideas would instantly limit their willingness to give something a try.
“I have (named two teachers) and there are days where they will say, ‘Today we have this, but I don’t like this so we are not going to do it, it’s just dumb.’ Like the webbies or whatever you guys call it, they both thought it was dumb.”
“No, my kids didn’t find it that interesting. So no, I don’t do it as much as I could and I don’t think it’s relevant.” (in response to the Truth or Dare process for our weekly CharacterDares)
“I find that sometimes [CharacterStrong has] different priorities. There will be days where I know that every kid who has me for advisory also has me for SS and so if we have a big project or an essay I have them do that instead because it could be detrimental to their grade.”
The tension between what we feel has to get taught versus what we know should get taught is not unique. Many teachers struggle with the same sentiment as above. And it is a priority issue. It is why we believe there is a priority gap. We know that students need the SEL skills we are offering, but everything that teachers and students are being evaluated on doesn’t take those critical skills into consideration. The struggle is real.
Dr. Clayton Cook says, “Kids can’t benefit from something they don’t receive.” As an educator, it was frustrating to hear how some teachers were limiting the potential impact of the work because of preference or comfort. Especially after hearing so many students talk about how they believe in the importance of the work and actually enjoy the lessons. We need to prioritize time as a school and district to do the adult SEL work first. We also need to learn how to get out of our own way so that we are not unintentionally standing in our student’s way.
Trusting the Process Leads to Valuable Outcomes
The CharacterDare process not only provides tools for students to put their character into action and practice what it looks like to be kind, humble, and committed, but the Truth or Dare process provides an intentional way for ALL students whether they completed the CharacterDare or not to enter the conversation. If we just ask the class “who did it?” then we eliminate the voices of those who may not have but can still speak their truth around what they think of that dare, why it was difficult, or their opinion of whether it was relevant or not and why. I discovered that this process is a challenge for teachers for a variety of reasons. I also discovered that the ones who trusted the process and held true to the lesson structure, had classes slowly but surely open up to them and the discussions and impact grew.
“It’s hard to know at first how much the kids are going to buy into something like that, but it’s super interesting because if I forget to ask them they are like, ‘Aren’t you going to see if we did this?’ and I think wow they actually took it seriously and a lot of them have examples for them. I think it’s cute because they really enjoy it. They actually probably enjoy that more than the other things that we do in homeroom.” -Teacher
“I teach 11th grade and I’ve tried using some of the activities just with my 11th graders and I’ve kind of just approached it like I’m just going to go with it, I’m going to trust the strategy even if I’m reading it thinking with my juniors this isn’t going to fly, but the buy-in has been amazing.” -Teacher
“It has been really nice just trusting the program and the system and seeing what it brings out in our students.” -Teacher
Trusting the process can be really challenging, especially if it pushes us out of our comfort zone, but growth can only happen when we experience a little discomfort and what an amazing opportunity to speak that truth to our students.
The CharacterDares Really Do Work!
One of my favorite discoveries was that students everywhere were trying the Dares and having positive experiences because of them. Students even talked about wishing they were given more to try.
“I want teachers to give more CharacterDares so people will do more.” - Sophomore
“I showed up to a friend's basketball game yesterday because of the CharacterDare, I haven’t been to something ever in high school, and tonight I am going to the wrestling match.” -Senior
“There was this kid who I know and he didn’t have many friends and then I gave him a compliment because it was one of the CharacterDares and now he’s one of my favorite friends! It really works.” -8th grader
“I did the Dare where you hold open the door for strangers and I met a lot of new people that way.” -Junior
“Sometimes you will see people doing the CharacterDare and you will realize it and think, hey I learned about that too.” -7th grade
“When they first did the webby thing, that handshake, people were giving handshakes in the halls.” -7th grade
The CharacterDare process begins each weekly lesson and provides students and the teachers implementing the lesson an opportunity to have situational conversations that are relevant immediately to those involved. Instead of doing role-playing at the secondary level (which does not work) we provide a genuine opportunity to plant SEL and Character Development seeds that grow both in students attempting the challenge of the week, but also from the opportunity to learn from their peers experience with the CharacterDare. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time or energy, and who doesn’t want these types of results on their campuses.
Implementation Team + Consistency = Impact
Most of the schools I visited had pulled together an Implementation Team that consisted of admin, teachers, and counselors. This team was charged with making sure that the staff was well-trained and informed, that time had been carved out and protected for the work to happen, and they were looking at outcomes to map out action plans. A lofty goal to say the least.
Considering that the schools are still early in their implementation phase and that it takes time to implement meaningful change, they are all works in progress. The power comes in the belief that having a team sets the program and the school up for success. If it is falling on just one motivated person to get the work done, then the program fails as soon as that person leaves or gets burnt out. If it’s not a priority at the foundational level of the school, it will never take flight.
“We have worked to make it manageable for staff since we have such a limited time and don’t want to overwhelm them.” -Counselor
“I like how it’s been in small pieces and not just given all at once where it gets overwhelming”- Teacher
“We chose CharacterStrong for a reason. Not just because it was good for the district, but because it fits our kids in a way that is unique and intentional which makes it worth our time and focus.” -Administrator
“The caution is to make sure it is not looked at like, ‘This too shall pass.’” -Administrator
“The coaches have been wonderful about sending out emails and helping us if we are struggling with anything related to CharacterStrong lessons.” -Teacher
Consistency and collaboration make the work possible for all staff. When a staff sees that it is a priority for the school, that administration is building in time to train and equip teachers, that there is evidence of its purpose on campus and not just in a single half-hour lesson sprinkled in haphazardly, the roots begin to develop and real change can start to occur. It’s obvious that it’s working. It’s obvious that kids love and need this work. It’s even obvious that our own discomfort as educators is getting in the way at times. But if I know anything about education after 20 years in the classroom, it’s that we have to stop looking for a silver bullet and giving up on something after we are not seeing magical results in a short period of time.
I’m with this 37-year teaching veteran who stated, “If we are going to do this, let’s do it! It makes no sense at all to do something for a year and then drop it. It frustrates me when we don’t stick to anything. If we are going to do it, let’s do it!”
Krista Gypton taught for 19 years and has received numerous awards for her teaching and student community service, including the 2008 Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She is an emphatic believer in the power of service to others and has traveled as far as South Africa with students to give back. She has been a keynote speaker and trainer for the past 11 years, both nationally and internationally.