by Kamau-Sahu Louis
I was raised by two hard-working teachers, so I was taught from a young age good values that I should embody as a student and how to treat my peers respectfully. But not everyone had the same nurturing and comfortable upbringing as me. Every school has bullies or kids that were just mean. That always seemed like a fact of life to me, and there was no point of changing that, there was no way schools could change those kids.
My experience at Character.org has completely changed my view of K-12 education and what it could be in the future. When I learned about Character.org I thought character development was interesting but an infeasible concept no one would buy into and that it’s nothing quantifiable. It was not until I started working there and seeing my coworkers’ commitment to character that I learned this was something valuable. I started reflecting on my own K-12 education and realized probably my best experience was in elementary school. During that period, I knew I was surrounded by a caring and positive environment. In hindsight, I recognize all the hard work the faculty and staff did to create this environment making sure every student felt valued. I understand not every elementary school is like this, but my elementary school helped me become the person I am today.
For me, this all changed in high school. The caring environment I enjoyed earlier in school was replaced with an attitude of everyone for themselves. There was a lack of unity. It all felt like we were there to compete against each other whether it was for grades, a teacher’s affection, or popularity. The important thing to remember here is there’s nothing wrong with competition in education. But it becomes a problem when students are only motivated to outdo one another. High school felt like everyone was divided whether it was by wealth, race, clubs, honors, or AP classes. Of course, they were exceptions, and things were a bit more nuanced than that, but for me and probably others, it wasn’t a supportive culture.
I was part of my National Honor Society chapter in my high school, but my NHS chapter differed in the fact that it was a club for popular students and those who wanted to be in the “in crowd.” The NHS chapter became less about community service and more about being in it to be popular or to show off you were a person active in the school. This led me to think about one of the main requirements to join NHS: having good character.
What is good character? How do you instill good character in schools? One of the first assignments I was given at Character.org was to reformat lessons plans from National Schools of Character. I spent a large amount of my first week reading over how these lessons were teaching values and morals for young children. This gave me the answers to my questions. Good character is treating everyone you meet in life with the proper respect they deserve. You instill good character by having a comfortable and welcoming environment in schools where no one feels like an outsider. To add to that, you also instill good character in schools by giving students and the community voices and input on school decisions. The most important thing I learned is good character has to be constantly taught not just in school but in life and it is something we are constantly developing. I saw this even more when I was reading through the National Schools of Character reports. I read through first-hand accounts of how character development changed these schools, and it wasn’t just small charter elementary schools. It was private schools, big public high schools and small middle schools across the country. I believe character development should hold more value in our current society. I believe too many people are concerned with getting ahead and not about how they treat others. I can confidently say though, Character.org is changing this narrative one school and one community at a time.