Independent or private schools have a distinct advantage over public schools in at least one key area of curriculum: character education. Character education is an intentional and purposeful focus on helping children develop positive qualities and values. It’s about encouraging them to do the right thing even when no one is looking. While the definition of the “right thing” may be debatable in certain circumstances, we believe some qualities are universally important to youth development. Many private and boarding schools focus on a few key values which drive their character development initiatives. (At Fessenden, our focus has been on honesty, compassion, and respect for more than 100 years.)
Why does Fessenden include character development as an integral part of our curriculum? We believe in developing and educating the whole child–not just his intellect. Understanding how to be a good friend, express gratitude, and give back to others are qualities that will affect a boy throughout his entire life–as much as his ability to calculate percentages or structure a persuasive essay. In addition, because we’re not bound to rigid state testing requirements, we have the freedom to spend classroom time on activities whose core objective is to develop character. We believe we’re nurturing compassionate, engaged young men as well as intelligent and competent learners.
Character education includes community service opportunities–and a wide variety of them: from serving at local nonprofits, to singing to senior citizens at a local retirement home, to donating toys during the holidays, to everything in between. But for many private schools, service means serving the greater community (including those less fortunate) AND serving each other in small but meaningful ways.
Every school has different ways of recognizing positive behavior. One of the ways Fessenden does this is through “commendations.” Commendations are written acknowledgements of acts of kindness or service performed by a student or faculty/staff member. These notes are posted publicly throughout the school and remind the community of the small good deeds constantly performed by its members. They act as a visual reminder of the weight the school places on its core values of honesty, compassion, and respect.
In this age of “selfies” and social media, we find that a focus on character helps boys navigate the online world. We remind them that everything they do and experience is preserved somewhere online. We teach them to be thoughtful about who they are and how they may be perceived and to strive to ensure their digital footprint reflects their kindness to others. Social media actually acts as positive reinforcement.
While many independent schools do an excellent job fostering students of strong character, a single-sex environment can bring character education to the next level. In an all-boys atmosphere, boys tend to be more willing to express their vulnerabilities. Because they’re not concerned about or comparing themselves to members of the opposite sex, they’re often more open about showing their appreciation and acknowledging when they’ve experienced an act of compassion from another student. They’re more emotionally available, and a supportive community of faculty and staff lets them know they’re safe to stretch–both academically and emotionally.
As our boys grow into young men, we see these traits and behaviors last far beyond their years at Fessenden. Truly, they’ve built a “moral vocabulary” they continue to use throughout their academic careers and into their personal and professional lives. Character education isn’t just a vital part of many private schools’ curricula; it’s a way of nurturing engaged, selfless, and kind community members.