Professing Education


Character Development in Teachers and Teaching1

Michael Kompf

Faculty of Education, Brock University, Canada


To paraphrase Walter Anderson's (1990) sentiment about reality - character and how we regard it isn't what it used to be. What educators and the educational system understand and can do about character and character development in schools isn't what it used to be either.

Character as a meaningful measure of individual nature seems to have become largely trivialised, representing codes of conduct and behavioural expectations that drag ideology along rather than lead it. Character development and character education, in the very best sense, have vestiges of the positive side or universal good will that traditional meanings still convey. It remains an idea whose time is always present. Much current usage and understandings of character and its development espouse fixed and firm definitions of goodness and related behaviours.

From the time of Plato, education and the opportunities presented by teacher - learner interactions have served as fertile grounds for the development of character. Character is a deep-rooted conceptual designation that connotes desirable or undesirable aspects of person and personality. To "be of good character" was, and in some places still is, a significant accolade used to describe an individual. To "be of questionable character" or to "lack in character" insinuates badness or flaws- specified or not. Being of good character implies that an individual recognises the differences between goodness and badness, and acts in ways that show higher order ethical and moral functioning. Most persons would agree that the larger social interest is best served by cultivating a citizenry comprised of people of good character than not. People of exceptionally good character are viewed as exemplars leading often to stories from which others might learn and pattern their choices.

Education systems are ideal venues for promoting incipient character development because of the social, cultural and legal ability to reward and reinforce goodness and punish or banish badness. Judging goodness and badness of character may be done with reference to absolutes or on a continuum. Examples of absolutes would include zero tolerance policies many schools have towards bullying, drugs, weapons and other forbiddens. Judging character on a continuum lends a "more or less" dimension to determining the gravity of actions that stray too far towards badness. That learners of good character create schools of good character seems to be a common hope and goal towards which many administrators work as a way of combating discipline problems and establishing a measure of control over behaviour. The obvious social understanding is that learners of good character will become citizens of good character and contribute to the larger social good directly by actions and indirectly as exemplars.

Much emphasis and interest in character education is evident throughout Western society, particularly in response to general perceptions that we live in troubled and undisciplined times fuelled by rapid socio-cultural and technological change. A quick Google search on the Internet in early 2005 turned up nearly 2.5 million hits with the query line "teacher education and character development." A few days of scanning showed great diversity in focus and sub topics. While repetitions and marginally related topics might reduce the total number of interesting and important programs, research and ideas, promotion and advocacy of "character" seems ubiquitous. Programs aimed at character development exist in all possible forms in all possible venues. Schools, districts, federal, state and provincial departments of education are well represented with home grown or professionally developed programs that emphasise the desirability of positive attributes such as are required to be of good character.

In spite of this interest, few teacher education programs provide direct character education. Several factors may account for such an absence. Berkowitz (1998) outlined the obstacles as such: disagreement on what character education means, disagreement of what constitutes character education, limitations on preservice curricula, limited scientific evidence, locating expertise and resources, and ambivalence about the appropriateness of educating for character.

Successful teacher education applicants are usually deemed to be of good character because of the vetting process through which they must go. Academic standing and favourable field related experiences give paper indications of socially and academically defined good character. In the Canadian Province of Ontario, new teachers must also submit to a criminal records check by the police. Even with such measures as a baseline of good character, each year the Ontario College of Teachers reports many cases of teachers dismissed for inappropriate conduct. In spite of any set of measures in place, questionable or bad characters still slip in.

Character education as it appears in teacher education seems not to be a part of the taught curriculum as pertains to the preparation of the teacher but rather it is taught to be passed on eventually to the students over whom new teachers will have responsibility. Hauer (2000) found that a group of Russian teachers had a raised level of awareness that impacted on their own behaviour and attitudes when teaching character education to others. An environment that fosters development of character as an overt or hidden agenda raises expectation levels and levels of awareness as to what constitutes attitudes and behaviours likely to lead to the demonstration of good character. Reinforcing demonstrations of good behaviour and thus good character becomes a socio-cultural imperative of the context in which specific educational practices will take place.

A comprehensive program called Character Matters (Havercroft, 2002) has been implemented by a large school district in Ontario encompassing a diverse approach to understanding and inculcating personal and social values thought likely to lead to academic, career and personal success. A conversation with the author revealed a broad-based strategy that was spreading to other learning communities, but whose effects had not yet been measured. Intentions were expressed to make this program available through workshops to teacher education programs. Further conversations with the Chair of a University's teacher education program indicated that character education was not part of the overt agenda in teacher preparation in part because of its controversial nature and cultural sensitivity. Both individuals agreed that teaching about and for character involved setting and enforcing visible standards and expectations sensitive to local circumstances. Both also acknowledged that such matters become difficult from a multicultural perspective as conflicts inevitably arise.

Prototypes of Character and the Diversity of Goodness

Character is a multi-purpose concept defined in many ways by many different groups and individuals. Not all definitions agree. The various definitions of character are influenced by the values, morals, and ideals of social groupings such as religion, state, race, and family. The goodness, lack, or questionability of character is codified and communicated through social and personal expectations that define potential and circumstance for both sainthood and sanction.

Character prototypes emerge in all societies that embody the highest level of development. The "what" of character, (e.g. traits), are easily named and visible in the missions of many schools and educational organisations. Examples include Respect, Courage, Responsibility, Good judgment, Honesty, Integrity, Empathy, Kindness, Fairness, Perseverance, Initiative, Self-Discipline and Optimism. Character by definition must have both construct and contrast poles (see Kelly, 1955) in ways that each pole is what the other is not. In other words, choosing goodness also means not choosing badness. Goodness of character derives its various definitions from examination of questions having to do with what is virtuous. Virtue, and leading a virtuous life, is embedded in religion and social philosophy as a measuring stick for behaviour, attitude and aspiration. Behavioural benchmarks from religious belief systems demand codes of conduct on which merit and perhaps access to better afterlives depend. To be virtuous, according to most Judeo-Christian belief systems, requires acceptance and demonstration of Humility, Generosity, Love, Kindness, Self Control, Faith and Temperance and Zeal. These virtues stand in the shade of their more popular counterparts: the seven deadly sins (Pride, Avarice/Greed, Envy, Wrath/Anger, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth). Dogmatically, these lists stand in either/or fashion and not as a continuum as lived experience might provide. These sins receive attention in proportion to the advocacy of belief and political systems that espouse them as vividly portrayed in the media dramas of politicians and pulpiteers. (Interestingly, the "seven deadly sins" appear nowhere in formal religious texts but are derived from religious teachings.) How to act and not act are also contained in the ten commandments, and other spiritual expectations of various belief systems and are subject to both group and individual interpretation. Anti-abortionists aspiring to the highest levels of spiritual and moral development who believe passionately in the rights to life violate laws set by the state through acts of civil disobedience such as public protest and picketing. In several cases, zealots have assassinated or seriously wounded doctors who perform such acts.

A patterning effect that mixes belief, behaviour, and being provides both content and process for character and character development. However, what is taken as "good" character in religious contexts overlaps and is sometimes competitive with matters of family, state, and universe. While loyalty to family and respect for parents is stressed in some belief systems, the perceived supremacy of state can override familial loyalty. Examples of children turning in parents for violations of state expectations are scattered throughout the history of oppression. In such examples, the children, from the view of the state, were of good character. Families were also torn apart because of contrary loyalties to the state when Americans opposed to fighting in Vietnam fled to Canada during the 1960s, earning the derogatory label of "draft dodgers".

However, what is of good character in one context is sometimes perceived as a lack of, or badness of character in another. A dramatic example of this is the idea of the "good terrorist." Whether for matters of religion or political and economic oppression, zealots express commitment to cause and goodness of character through willingness to surrender life whether by suicide bomb or by carrying out any militaristic function. Terrorists are individuals who carry grievances they feel can only be addressed by threatening safety through aggression and acts of war and destruction. If they are successful and very good at what they do, they earn the designation of good character from their compatriots. Recipients of acts of terrorism deem perpetrators to be of bad character and either succumb or fight facing the risk of hostility beyond reason.

Who the "good terrorist" is depends mostly on who wins and writes the historical account. The foregoing descriptions apply equally well to American revolutionaries from a British perspective, the hunted-down resistance fighters in WW2, and those associated with activities surrounding the tragedies of 9/11. Power may well be a defining aspect of character as wielding it leads to unique challenges and singular or group development of vision. The accoutrements of power and potential for abuse seem most evident when associated with policy. Policy, whether, economic, cultural or moral, is refracted through governance systems that foster loyalty to flag and national identity. Loyalty to dictators seems counterintuitive from a democratic capitalist perspective mainly because different gods are served; each with persuasive local powers. Defining the goodness or badness of character seems an impossible task if considered primarily from a local perspective. The task faced by policy makers who include character education in the conditions of learning and teaching involves prioritisation of loyalties as well as determining the circumstances for inculcation and the consequences of deviance.

Character and Community

Character is a function of community. As with the good terrorist, tribal expectations trump global hopes. Within this very idea lurks the assumption that a universal definition of goodness in character is possible or even desirable. In times past, first loyalties were contested by (in no particular order) state, religion, and family. The transitions afforded by such forces as democracy and capitalism has brought "self" into the contest for loyalties.

Sustained good character may well be the stuff of fiction, parables, or myths, lying at the furthest reach of volition. The new media alluded to by Neil Postman (1995) has become community and has shaped beyond imagination the forces that define reality for new generations. At the heart of Postman's dilemma are the "gods" that define community: mainly consumerism. Media continuously redefines community with a flux of sufficient temper to promulgate whimsy and withstand nature's call for depth by providing an endless landscape of shallow dealings and meanings. Whether or not experiences available through vicarious means sufficiently emulate the actual and substitute voyeuristic adventure and perceived engagement for the "real" thing is unfortunately left to the discernment of individuals whose tastes have been "super-sized" and sensitised for instant gratification.

How functional are the traditional virtue-based attributes of character or even the compelling family or state definitions? If good character leads to a successful life, how might we re-view what success has come to mean and what lengths are required to reach it? The idea of "being of good character" seems close to the social set of what it means to be a "hero." Heroism has taken somewhat of a beating and seems more a designation of acts performed by an individual rather than a status conferred on the individual. A review of tarnished heroes would validate such an assumption. The definition of what "hero" or at least "looked-up-to-other" constitutes seems also to have altered. Those who attain success in financial, sports or political arenas while reaching a version of Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame seem also to experience a mercurial rise and fall characterized by adulation, popularity and frequently notoriety. Moments of indiscretion or poor judgment either reveal masked prior intent or tarnish lifetimes of good work. Is good character something then, that may be fleeting or occasionally rise to the surface, against a backdrop of otherwise banal everyday expressions of human frailty?

Theoretical Constructions of Character

If the concept of character is viewed as having a basis in, or at least relationship to, morals, values, ideals, goals and the like, then viewing how it might be described as part of a meeting space between psychosocial and cognitive development seems worthwhile. Character as a concept in psychology and sociology is a theme rather than a topic. The aspects of psychology that define much of its practice deal with persons of abnormal character and set boundaries beyond which the varying shades of normalcy begin. Associating the idea of normalcy with "acceptable behaviour" for individuals defines, or at least contributes to the social role expectations expected by those who study groups of individuals and the societies they form as well as the norms under which they act. The implicit continuum or dichotomy of character goodness and badness is constructed according to, or in spite of social and other expectations. The personal and social construction of reality and its impact on the definition and formation of character seems linked in ways that can be understood by drawing on such theorists as Maslow (1970), Piaget (1962), Kohlberg (1984) and Kelly (1955).

Maslow's ideas are based on ascendance through a hierarchy of needs. A pyramid of these needs is usually depicted from base up: physiological, safety, belonging and love, self esteem, with self-actualisation at the apex. Once a level of need is satisfied, capacity and importance builds for the next. A self-actualised individual is one who is fulfilled and doing the best that his or her capabilities permit. The characteristics of a self-actualised individual include the qualities of awareness, honesty, freedom and trust. Maslow's understanding of these aspects encompass relationships between self, others and society, and while humanistic in orientation are somewhat culturally bound. The idea of limitless individual potential, while laudable, seems somewhat more indicative of the spirit of the times during which Maslow's thoughts developed.

Piaget's work is important for consideration of character development for at least two reasons. First, the understanding Piaget provides of schema and the organisation of experience through the dynamics of accommodation and assimilations may be used to explain aspects of character development as linked to cognitive capacity and readiness. Second, the work of Kohlberg extends Piaget into the area of moral development providing further explanation of character and linking neatly with aspects of Maslow's work. The levels of moral development dovetail somewhat as ascendancy through each hierarchy occurs. For example great correspondence might be imagined between self-actualisation and the highest level of moral reasoning.

Kelly's (1955) ideas about how individuals construe events and circumstances are also important because of the anticipatory nature of such constructions. When an individual's anticipations turn out to be successful, those constructions and related constructs are likely to be drawn on again and again in similar circumstances until revised. Kelly felt that the core constructs that are central in individual lives remain relatively stable over time with the caveat of dysfunctional impermeability.

In these theories less attention is paid to the influence of social and cultural determinants than are needed in the multi-cultural, multi-media milieu of teaching and learning found in the postmodern condition. Character formation can be understood in terms of these factors: when (age), where (home, school etc.), what (expressed through goodness or lack thereof), how (impression formation repetition of successful short and long term strategies). However all of this leads back to the conundrum of the good terrorist.

Changing Times Change Character

"Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great

technological and cultural transition." Marshall McLuhan

It seems illogical that as society adapts to the ever-changing forms, machines and garments of progress, the desired fit calls for more adjustments on the part of persons than otherwise. The late Neil Postman put such an argument forth persistently and eloquently. In The end of education (1995a), Postman asked three important questions: "Do television and computer technology limit or expand opportunities for authentic and substantive freedom of expression? Do new media create a global village, or force people to revert to tribal identities? Do new media make schools obsolete, and create new conceptions of education?" (p. 141). To these questions might be added "What attributes of good character are required to meet and address the consequences of the challenges created by information and communications technology?" Times have changed with regards to education and the constitution of character expectation simply does not fit. The language and symbols are different; the goals values and ideals have become infomercials and meaningless slogans.

Aspirations implied through educational successes are also deluding. For teachers, especially those in higher education, significant tensions may erupt between the sirens calls of vocation, careerism and professionalism. Vocation is a sense of calling or mission to enter teaching or some sort of ministry associated with religion. An embraced and fulfilling vocation may resonate with Maslow's higher (or perhaps highest) level of actualising, or with Kohlberg's higher stages of moral development. Contrasting with a sense of vocation is the ideals of professionalism such as are expected of the professoriate. The lure or command of publish or perish have been further complicated by grant-getting and the new status it is accorded by fiscally driven institutions. Reputation-building is linked to earning power and potential for upward academic mobility.

While the idea of character has breadth and depth in the larger social regard, it also has great meaning and significance when focused on specific noteworthy activities. Of great importance are the forming grounds for character such as family, community, and schools. Of these, schools and schooling are of special importance because all influences of character development seem to be brought together, formed, tested, and revised for present and future action. How the social and personal constructions of character meet and take shape in educational circumstances is of concern for students, the ultimate recipients, whose character is thus formed into a set of expectations that are subsequently passed on to the next generation in ways that can be understood through the ideas of social reproduction and cultural production. The formation of character is thus linked in a social-developmental perspective.

Character per se, unfolds as it is formed imbuing an individual with a set of expectations for behaviour and attributes. Writers such as James Hillman (1999) believe that no full assessment of character can be made of an individual until after they have died, as it is still a work in progress until life's end.

Character has a dark side when used as an agenda for behavioural control, discipline, and conformity. To be of good character means to meet or exceed the expectations of accepted systems of values, morals, ethics, and ideologies that represent the dominant view of society with which an individual is engaged, whether micro or macro. Expressions of any sort that run counter to dominant expectations may be met with reactions ranging from mild disapproval to designating need for correction. Thus a conformist and uncritical view of character expectations may be countered. An example can be drawn from experiences had in North America when legislation was brought in to eliminate the presence of religion and religious practices in public schools. Recitation of the Lord's Prayer as a part of opening announcements in the morning were excluded leaving pledges of allegiance (which ironically contains "under God" as a provision) and perhaps recitation of local mission statement or goals. Ironic confusion reigns.

Further questions must be addressed regarding the divisiveness of cultural definitions of character, how a universal model for goodness of character can exist and whether or not individuals understand goodness from a multiplicity of views. All of these topics are within the scope of research into thinking about teachers and teaching. Clearly much of the conversation hinges on the language and concepts used to describe and discuss what we mean by character and whether or not it is a path to goodness or simply another manipulation of spirit serving the end of control.

I'd say the most pervasive intellectual idea of this century (one finds it in physics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, almost everything else) is that the form in which we express whatever we have to express about the world controls to some extent what we are saying and what we can see. You find this in Heisenberg's remark that we do not see nature as it is, only by the questions we put to it. And you find in linguistics people discovering that different grammatical forms give people different perceptions of how the universe works. Some people say "We don't see things as they are but as we are". It's this idea which I think is the major thrust of scholarship in our own century. (Neil Postman, in an interview with Modern Reformation Newsletter, 1995)


1A previous version of this paper was presented at the 12th biennial meeting of the International Study Association on Teachers and Teaching (ISATT) (29 June- 03 July 2005) Sydney, Australia.


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