Nancy Penchev
Should schools be responsible for teaching character dispositions, such as grit and adaptability? No

Each parent has a different set of ideals for their children, including where they want them to go in life, how they want them to act and whom they should associate with. These ideals are based on norms from their community, where they live, the religious views of the family and beliefs they hold dear. The parent teaches the child those ideals through modeling, storytelling and actions/reactions to the child’s behavior.

This shaping of the child’s character begins at birth and continues throughout their life. By the time a child reaches school age they have already built much of their belief systems and have begun to understand the expectations of their behavior.

Once students enter school, their family’s character building must then align with school rules and expectations. But if a teacher or school tries to override the parents’ ideals, it’s likely to impose a hardship on the child and the teacher.

And let’s not overlook the teacher’s already loaded curriculum. Teachers must already meet Common Core State Standards, state-issued mandates and school requirements. Adding the development of character traits to the mix is just too much. Yes, you could add moral lessons to the study of books you read or personal responsibilities to your social studies curriculum, but the majority of character-building needs to happen in the home.

In addition, character-building is not something that can be taught in isolation. Just as you shouldn’t teach a lesson on verbs without giving students an opportunity to look for examples of verbs in sentences or books, you cannot teach perseverance without concrete examples. And in the case of character dispositions, those examples can’t be manufactured artificially.

There are, of course, some thing teachers can do. They can lead by example or point out teachable moments when they occur naturally. Encouraging students to continue displaying positive character traits, such as willingness to take risks or flexibility, is something most teachers do already. But if you make all this a requirement, it would suddenly become much more onerous. You would have to assess it and provide proof of learning. How do you prove a student has committed to lifelong learning? How do you show evidence of a student having grit and determination? Is there a paper-and-pencil test, or should this be a portfolio assignment? How can you determine if a child is adequately demonstrating “grit”?

As educators, it is our job to teach our students content. We can support parents and give assistance when asked. We can partner with parents to guide their children toward good choices and ensure they become strong, productive citizens. But we cannot take over the building of character. The home shapes the child, and we shape the mind. 

Nancy Penchev is the media/instructional technology coordinator for Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Florida, and has taught elementary school and early childhood education for 18 years. See her professional presentations at www.nancypenchev.com, read her blog on technology tools at www.nancypenchev.edublogs.org and follow her on Twitter at @penchevable.