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What is a character educator?

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A strange thing happened to me at a holiday party. I was making the rounds introducing myself to people I didn’t know. The most common question, asked was, “Well what do you do? My answer stops people in their tracks. They pause! They look quizzical, baffled and hesitant about what to say next. Why? Because my answer to the question is “I am a character educator?” Well, let’s have another drink and move on.

What do I say if someone in the group asked, “Well, what is that?” Few do, of course, but how would I answer that question?

“A character educator, I would explain, is someone who specializes in educating others, mainly educators and parents, about the need to teach young people (and some adults) what it means to be people of good character.

“But what do you do?” is usually the next question. I tell them: “I teach, write, and consult with educators and parents at schools, in the community, at parent-teacher meetings, at conferences, and in courses.

I engage interested adults in conversations about helping young people learn and practice positive social and emotional skills and the virtues that the young need to learn and they need to model; virtues like respect, responsibility, perseverance and empathy.”

By now there are only two or three people in our group, the others have wondered off to get another drink and have conversations about sports, their favorite movies, and the latest issue of People magazine. But for the three or four who remain (I’m counting my wife here), the next question is usually: “How do you do that?”

The “how” question is a little complicated and can lead to a long-winded answer. A holiday party is no place to do that. So I suggest that they let me ask them a few questions. “What do you think of when I use the word ‘character’? After a short discussion, I remind them that the word “character” has two Cs in it; one stands for “choices” and the other for “consequences.” Living a life of good character, I tell them, doesn’t happen by chance, nor does it happen by circumstance. It happens by the choices we make. So as a character educator I try to help adults teach the young to make good, positive, ethical choices and learn to take responsibility (a virtue) for their actions and be willing to accept the negative consequences and do something about them, as well as celebrate the positive consequences.

By this time, we are ready to move on and engage in conversations with others. As we conclude, I suggest three things:  

One, that character matters no matter who you are or where you are. Two, that they might look at character education this way: If exercising builds strong muscles, then practicing the virtues of good behavior builds strong character. Three, one important way that our children learn character is from observing, imitating, and modeling what adults say and do.

This being the case, I remind them that they too are character educators.

For some reason, I seldom get invited back to holiday parties.

Ed DeRoche is a former teacher, administrator, school board member, and dean. He has written several books and articles on character education. Currently he is the director of the Character Development Center at the University of San Diego and teaches in-class and online courses on instructional strategies, curriculum and programs, and character-based classroom management. Join the party.