How Principle 1 Changed My High School Experience

by Rebecca Bauer

During my freshman year of high school, my favorite teacher pulled me aside. She explained that she was assembling a committee to rewrite the school’s character expectations and she was hoping I would help. Having attended the Montclair Kimberley Academy since age 6, I’d been hearing about these expectations for nearly a decade.

Respectful. Responsible. Confident. Friendly. Informed. Temperate. Fair. Honest.

There were a lot of them. And still, I knew them well.

I remember attending that first meeting. There was one representative from each grade, which meant I was only freshman in the room. It was intimidating but exciting. We began by discussing what purpose the character expectations served. Why were we revising them? What were our goals?

We weren’t changing the existing expectations. They were already embedded into our community and into the curriculum. They were based in research and our school’s rich history of Character Education, which was established by our former Headmaster, character education expert, Dr. Peter Greer.

It wouldn’t make sense to throw all of that away. However, we wanted to rewrite them so they would be more accessible to all students at our school. There are many benefits to attending a PK-12 school, but it certainly made this task more challenging. A simple answer would’ve been to write multiple versions, but we wanted this document to unifying. Because only high school students were drafting the revised document, it was especially important that we try to think from the perspective of our younger peers. But how would we write with the clarity and simplicity necessary for Pre-K without losing the richness inherent in these values?

Sometimes it felt like discussions were prompting more questions than answers. Did we even want to call them expectations? What were the implications of that? We settled on calling them Character Standards, a word nicely reminiscent of a lyric in the school song: “Our thanks to those who went before and set a standard high.” We were writing the standards that we wanted all members of our community to strive for.

It was a bit of a daunting task, especially when it was decided that we’d each take home a standard to work on and bring back to the group. When I’d begun the process I thought I would be giving input, helping to draft a document that the faculty and parents and administrators would edit to their liking. Suddenly, it became clear that they were handing the control to the students. Our words, once approved, would be the ones in the document. Although scary, it was also quite empowering.

I remember thinking about the word assigned to me. Confident. What did it look like? What did it feel like? I nervously brought my draft to the team, as did the other students. Respectful debate ensued, all of us wanting to ensure we captured the essence of the value in the clearest and most concise way possible. Eventually, we’d produced a document that we were satisfied with, but that was only the beginning.

We presented these core values to the faculty at each campus of our school and again, to our peers. We fielded questions and helped to publicize the values, worked to ensure they were at the front and center of everyone’s mind.

Once they were written and disseminated, I thought our work was done. Luckily, our advisor knew better. She told me she wanted to establish a student ethics committee, that would be tasked with finding engaging and meaningful ways to integrate these newly defined standards into student life. The opportunity to continue working on the project excited me. 

Over the years, the ethics committee held events including movie nights that incorporated ethical discussions and student-only pick up conversations on controversial topics. We made posters using inspiring character quotes and adorned the hallways. We served as a resource to faculty, offering our student perspective at their summer Ethics Institute.

The ethics committee was an aspect of school that I looked forward to. I felt passionately about its importance. And it was my favorite teacher who helped to fuel that passion, without which, I doubt I’d be working at Character.org today.

So let me finish with one piece of advice I have regarding Principle 1, “The school community promotes core ethical and performance values as the foundation for good character.”

You can’t do it alone. Your stakeholders, and particularly your students, are your greatest assets.

Rebecca Bauer

Rebecca Bauer

Rebecca is a former employee of Character.org.

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