The Teacher’s Role in Developing Students of Excellent Character

One of the most important tasks we have as faculty members at Derby is to develop and nurture caring, respectful and empathetic students. Our school’s mission statement is very clear about this: We are charged with guiding students “…toward an awakening sense of personal responsibility in order to prepare them to make ethical and mindful contributions in an increasingly interdependent world.”

As anyone who has worked with or parented middle school-aged children knows, this can be a challenging job on most days – as boys and girls reach adolescence and enter a stage in their growth that is full of uncertainty, stress and tremendous cognitive, social, emotional and physical change. So how do we, as educators, teach young adolescents to be individuals of good character, particularly in grades six to eight, when these changes are at their peak and, at times, being nice, respectful and inclusive of others can be the furthest thought from a child’s mind (as they attempt to figure out and handle the changes that they are personally experiencing)?

As our students go through this period, the Middle and Upper School teachers use an extremely valuable set of tenets called Responsibilities and Rights to help us guide students as they interact with one another and as they make daily choices as members of the Derby Community. One or more of the five principles in this “code for social behavior” may be applied, in my view, to just about every instance of when a student makes a poor decision on our campus. The plain language of our Responsibilities and Rights also provides excellent learning opportunities for Middle and Upper Schoolers, as well as valuable teachable moments for our faculty. You will notice that the first tenet is centered on the term “respect” and the last one on the notion of always doing one’s “personal best.” The fact these two are the bookends for the code is done on purpose, given their power to influence students in their character development.

As Joe Perry, our Head of School, mentioned in his State of the School Address last week, academic and social/personal growth go hand in hand when we think about teaching and raising children to be successful as both learners and healthy, contributing members of a school community. To me, you really cannot pull the two apart when discussing adolescents; their ability to experience success in the classroom is closely tied to how they feel about themselves, their place in their community, their relationships with both peers and adults, and the degree to which they feel respected by others in their school, especially the adults.

Julie Baron, a social worker, adolescent therapist and former middle school counselor, recently summed this up well in a blog she wrote recently for the educational website, Edutopia. She notes,

“We know that adolescents are acutely aware of when adults are treating them with respect and when they aren’t. We also know that engagement leads to successful academic outcomes and a greater sense of well-being for both the student and educator. If (students) are more likely to engage with adults who respect them, it’s safe to say that respect is essential to student learning.

When adolescents describe the ways in which they experience respect, they report that they want to feel challenged by being pushed beyond their comfort zone. They want adults to hold the bar high for them. They feel respected when adults listen and respond to them without judgment, and accept their beliefs and values, however different from their own. And when adults are responsive to their intellectual, physical, social, and emotional needs, adolescents feel this as genuine concern for their welfare, which in turn makes them feel valued.”

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