Character Through Empowerment: A Journey for Self

Empower every student to reclaim themselves from their passive role in their indoctrination allowing them to redefine themselves.

Photo of Chris Llewellyn
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I start every class I teach with a simple question: Whose classroom is this?

There are many answers that vary from the school board's to potential alien life forms. However, the most common simple answer is that the classroom is mine. I argue that this is false, that this is their class and they are in control of how this learning experience will play out. They are often caught off guard by this as we have done a wonderful job of hammering even the squarest of pegs in the round hole of partial obedience. However, I always follow this up by asking what they think I would do if they all decided to get up and leave right then and there. The students then struggle with answers such as:

1. Call the principal: I explain that if I had to call my mentor and leader everytime a student decided they would leave, I wouldn't be teaching very long.

2. Call their parents: I laugh this one off and reenact a playground scenario of I am telling on you and you can't stop me.

3. Threaten their grades: Ahhhhh yes, this is what it is really all about, I give them my world that no behaviour they could invoke in my classroom would ever effect their grade. Their grade is earned by them not taken away when they struggle. 

4. At this point someone usually points out that I am big and could stop them physically. At that point I explain that I like my job and their lawyer would not let me keep it if I physically restrain them.

So then why are they here? At what point did they choose to come. This is where the learning begins as we unpack all the reasons they have chosen to be in this moment, this class at this time. Then we discuss the events that lead up to them sitting in the chair they are in that day. The multitude of little choices they made and why they made them. Then through this discussion, which usually fills up the rest of the class, they come to terms with the fact that it is in their power to be or not to be here at this moment. That this is their classroom and they are in control of it. This is the start of their journey towards self and exploring what that journey really means. This is day one of every class I have taught, from English to Chemistry to Legal Studies or Drama. Once they realize their power they can then begin to understand how to engage in their definition of self. At this point they begin to understand the "character" of themselves. We then move on to explore some basic forms of philosophical inquiry we will use on this personal journey and our exploration of the course.

Optional: What are some character strengths you’ve worked on with students in the past? Why did you focus on these?

This completely depends on the student. I had an extremely academic young lady this last term whose character goal was to redefine herself as separate from grades. This was a challenge for her throughout the year but we got her to play field hockey, a huge stretch for her, but it worked. She loved it and became a member of a team for the first time in a long time. She did well in the class, but more importantly she was more comfortable with herself and her relationship with her father improved.

Optional: How comfortable do you feel incorporating character education in your curriculum? (1-10, where 10 = very comfortable!)


Optional: Tell us more! What's one thing you wish there was more of / less of when it comes to character learning in schools?

I wish there was more time for teachers to empower themselves with the tools neccesary to feel comfortable to engage in these discussions. We often focus on the practicality of our chosen field of expertise and bury our ego in the pursuit of excellence in what we teach, not how we teach it.

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Photo of Cathy Wolfe

Chris, I love what you shared here. As I was reading, my very first teaching job came to mind. It was at a high school in rural North Carolina with a group of 16 year olds who were considered "slow". According to the state law at the time, they were not required to stay in school after 16. So the students all had the power to choose whether they stayed not. And since they were "special ed" I was not bound by the arbitrary testing standards of regular classes. The students all had a long history of academic failure . Other teachers had given up on them and said they just couldn't learn.

However, the wonderful principal of that high school gave me and the other special ed teacher his blessing to develop whatever curriculum would meet the learning needs and goals of the students! We spent untold hours collaborating and creating customized materials that dovetailed with where our students were at. We shared ideas, gave each other feedback and empowered the students to build a classroom and culture where they could succeed.

Guess what? All the students stayed in class and they all learned! That first job has infused me with passion and commitment for my entire career.

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