The Power of Example

by Dave Keller

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with my all-time favorite character quote:

“Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.”

I’m astonished at the powerful simplicity of these words. As I recall the most influential people in my past, each of them demonstrated behavioral integrity — their actions matched their words. Conversely, some of my most painful memories involve observing hypocrisy in people I had previously trusted.

Maybe that’s why Principle 8 of Character.org’s 11 Principles of Character resonates so powerfully — and personally — with me. It speaks to the very heart of Emerson’s quote:

Principle 8: The school staff is an ethical learning community that shares responsibility for character education and adheres to the same core values that guide the students.

At first glance, it may seem as though Principle 8 has two distinct parts: (a) be an ethical learning community, and (b) adhere to the same core values that guide the students.  In a sense, I guess that’s accurate. But I really perceive these two elements as being so interconnected that they are, at least in my mind, one and the same. We’re talking about of the power of EXAMPLE.

Part of our example should be modeling a lifelong love of learning. As educators, we not only want our students to learn the presented material of any given day, but we also want our students to enjoy the process of intellectual growth and learning. When we model this love of learning in our own lives, we create a powerful example for our students. Principle 8 creates a template for creating an ethical learning community around the concepts of character development and education.

Another important way for educators to strengthen their character education muscles is through formal Professional Development training and development. 

Former Secretary of State and Army General Colin Powell often spoke about the concept of a “force multiplier” — a factor that dramatically increases the effectiveness of an item or group. To me, Principle 8 is the “force multiplier” of the 11 Principles.

As a school staff begins to collectively embrace the concept of becoming an ethical learning community, this creates a synergistic momentum that spurs creativity and generates ideas. Skeptics become participants — and eventually advocates.

Members of ethical learning communities strengthen conscious (and subconscious) dispositions toward modeling appropriate behaviors and attitudes. Like students, adults grow in their own character by working collaboratively, sharing best practices, and participating in decision-making that improves all areas of the school. They also benefit from meaningful staff development and opportunities to observe colleagues and then apply character development strategies in their own work with students.

As a staff begins to intentionally engage in reflection, they begin to answer some vital questions:

  • What character building experiences are we already providing for its students? How effective and comprehensive are these?
  • What negative moral behaviors are we currently failing to address?
  • What school practices are at odds with our professed core values and desire to develop a school of character?

Reflection on these questions (and others) provides an indispensable condition for developing an all-encompassing culture of character. In short, it’s a force multiplier that leads to benefits across each of the remaining Principles.

Dave Keller

Dave Keller is a former staff member of Character.org.

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