In February, seventh grader Faith Holland from the Partnership’s St. Athanasius School in the Bronx explained that the school has four core values, and it was clear from how she explained them that those four traits came up so often, in so many different ways, that she couldn’t forget them if she tried.
“We have to practice them daily,” she says. “In class, you show integrity: if we didn’t understand a question, we wouldn’t cheat on a test. And in service, you would help around the school; in hard work, we would try to work harder to get good grades. And humility, we wouldn’t brag about what we got on our tests or show it to people who didn’t get good grades.”
Of course, the true test of Faith’s character—of any person’s character—isn’t whether she remembers the core values she is being taught, but whether she lives them out when it really counts—hence, the daily practice. This month, two educators make a compelling case for the particular value of such steady formation next year, when a return to in-person learning on a larger scale will likely bring more students with greater social and emotional needs than ever back into the classroom.
Students returning from over a year of remote learning—and from 17 months out of the traditional school setting, when families may also have experienced both health and economic disruptions—may have a hard time adjusting, or might come to school with significant emotional needs. Additionally, both students who have attended in person and teachers who have grown used to smaller classes may also face more challenges to social integration than we may have been compelled to manage this year.
Laura Encalade and Dr. Hank Staggs from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching shared an insightful, elegantly-simple-but-not-easy theory with The Fordham Institute’s Flypaper: addressing students’ needs isn’t simply a matter of adding school-wide programs or teaching coping mechanisms, while those may have their uses. “Students’ social and emotional development must be supported as part of the fabric of the school environment,” they assert. In fact, they propose community-wide values and habits formation quite similar to what seventh grader Faith is receiving.
We will fail if we seek a short-term solution or try to fix social and academic needs exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic with a single program or strategy. —Laura Encalade and Dr. Hank Staggs
Encalade and Staggs identify traits that surely Americans of every ideology or none can support—“resiliency, courage, and empathy”—and then they proceed to make the case for such character education not as an add-on program to the school day but woven into “the daily school culture.” They point to the crucial impact of adults modeling the traits we expect from kids, and of schools that don’t just preach equity but teach habits that empower students to treat each other equitably.
At Partnership Schools, we clearly support the approach that Encalade and Staggs identify; indeed, we’ve seen its impact in action already. As Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis has shared in a previous Post, our schools work hard to build unique cultures that consistently enable each student to thrive, cultures that weave core values and root beliefs into the daily experiences of teachers and students in every classroom. Such consistency—which we’ve come to think of as integrity, thanks to Christian—is a key ingredient in the “secret sauce” of effective Catholic schools.
Implicit in Encalade and Staggs’ assertions are a few assumptions worth surfacing:
1. Character formation need not be the project of faith-based schools alone.
2. Well-crafted, school-wide character formation can be empowering and stabilizing for students who may be experiencing challenges that come from outside school. It can be an asset to students’ mental health if it is done with integrity, not hypocrisy—if it results in community-wide behaviors that make everyone more welcome.
3. Individuals’ mental health and the functioning of their communities reinforce each other—for good and for ill. “No man is an island,” John Donne famously suggests. Many of us, including our children, need individualized mental health support in some periods of their lives; yet even the most robust counseling or coping skills training has to swim against a current if the community in which children are receiving that individual support isn’t also pursuing values, lived out in behaviors, that help more of its members thrive.
4. Thus effective character formation isn’t simply a program that a vendor can tee up for a school; it must be part of the daily wiring of a school. As Encalade and Stagg say, “We will fail if we seek a short-term solution or try to fix social and academic needs exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic with a single program or strategy.” That’s because one of the greatest gifts that children give us is their ability to do as we do, not as we say. Unless we have consistency, or integrity, of what a community says and does, our children stand a poor chance of developing the habits we seek for them.
As all of us come out of a period of isolation into fuller community with each other, we are no doubt noticing aspects of community and its effect on each of us individually that we may not have noticed before. So much of who we become collectively and individually in the next year will depend on how we connect with others, and we heed Encalade and Staggs’ call for school communities to interact purposefully and comprehensively to advance values that will help all students flourish.
Beth Blaufuss is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.