In Character

In Character

While teachers have always taken to heart their role as moulders of future generations, today character development permeates the entire Ontario curriculum, from kindergarten through Grade 12.

by Gabrielle Bauer

With a deliberate swagger, Jeff walks by Ryan’s desk and knocks his pencil case to the floor. “Hey, dummy, put it back,” Ryan cries out.

“You’re really scaring me,” Jeff drawls, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

The classroom fills with chuckles. “Well done,” says David Thwaits, OCT, their Grade 7 teacher in the French Immersion program at Kensal Park PS in London. “Jeff, Ryan, let’s go over the scene again, this time using a respectful way to resolve the conflict. Then we can all talk about it.”

More than a light-hearted break from the serious stuff, this scenario is as integral to the curriculum as fractions and reading comprehension. “It’s one of the ways we teach character traits such as respect,” says Thwaits. “We do skits that exemplify both respectful and disrespectful behaviour, and then we discuss the ramifications of each.”

Ontario students are expected to come out of school not only reading, writing and balancing chequebooks, but playing fair, empathizing and persevering. They’re expected, in other words, to develop character.

The Ontario Ministry of Education defines character development as the deliberate effort to nurture values that schools and communities agree upon. The word development is no accident, says Ministry spokesperson Patricia MacNeil. “Character is not a separate subject taught to students – that’s why we don’t call it character education,” she explains. “It’s an approach, an attitude, a philosophy that’s woven into all strands of the curriculum.”

Monique Dubreuil, OCT, Director of Student Services at the Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario, finds character development an inspiring idea. “It goes beyond a specific time and place. We live it in French at our board, but it transcends all language and cultural barriers.”

True confessions

It’s the second day of school in the Grade 3 class of Dana Campeau, OCT, who teaches at MacLeod PS in Sudbury. The students are gathered around her in a semicircle.

“Can anyone tell me about something you find scary?” she asks. It takes a few moments before a hand finally goes up. “I’m scared of spiders,” says Brendan.

“Spiders are cool,” says Joshua, scratching his close-cropped hair.

“Thanks for telling us how you feel about spiders,” Campeau says to Joshua. “Is there anything that does scare you? Or that you find difficult?”

Joshua shrugs. “I suck at art, I guess.”

“Want to know what I find scary?” Campeau asks the class. Several children nod. “Deep lakes,” she says. “You know, where you can’t see the bottom.”

The words empathy and tolerance haven’t crossed anyone’s lips, but the message gets through, says Campeau. “They’re learning that we’re all different and that everyone – even grownups like their teacher – has weak points and fears. It makes other people seem more human to them, which is where empathy begins.”

“It’s an approach, an attitude, a philosophy that’s woven into all strands of the curriculum.”

Next on Campeau’s agenda: perseverance. Once the kids have shared their bugaboos, Campeau conducts a ceremony in which her students release “I can’t” balloons into the air, the symbolism crystal clear even to eight-year-olds.

To foster the trait of honesty, Campeau makes a point of praising students for being honest, “even if they’re admitting to some inappropriate behaviour like playing catch with their lunch sandwich.” If she fails to keep a promise she made to them – like getting an assignment marked by a certain day – she apologizes rather than making excuses. “That way I’m modelling both honesty and responsibility – and that teachers are fallible, too.”

Pierrette Fequet, OCT, who teaches Grades 7 and 8 at école élémentaire publique Carrefour Jeunesse in Rockland, uses newspaper articles to stimulate reflection about character.

“I recently had my students read an article about a young woman who refused to let her severe dyslexia get in the way of a university education,” she says. This segued into a discussion about perseverance, empathy and acceptance. “We talked about the hurt that people experience when they’re teased, even good-naturedly. It was an eye-opener for some of the kids.” Another article, this one about Armenian genocides, led to discussions about “the need to take a stand against injustice.”

Teachable moments

At the beginning of every school year, Lisa Grant, OCT, asks her class to describe their ideal classroom – what it would look like, how the teacher would behave and how the students would interact with each other. From this brainstorming session comes a list of “tribe agreements” the students all pledge to follow. “The behaviours reflect character traits like kindness, honesty and perseverance,” says Grant, who teaches Grade 6 at Elizabeth Simcoe Junior PS in Toronto.

One morning in Grant’s classroom, Jessica leans over to Emily and says, loudly enough for others to hear, “Did you buy that jacket at Value Village?”

Emily flinches. “My mom bought it new,” she says.

Grant turns to Jessica. “What tribe agreement are you having trouble with this morning?”

“She told us she gets some of her clothes at Value Village,” Jessica says defensively.

“Is that the point?”

After a few moments of silence, Jessica looks up above the blackboard where the behaviours are posted. “No put-downs,” she mumbles.

Grant nods. “What I’d like you to do in the next few minutes is write down how you might make amends,” she says. “We can discuss your ideas after the break.”

“They can’t really dispute the behaviours when they came up with the list in the first place.”

Grant says that “posting the expected behaviours on the wall makes it easy for us to refer to them and keeps them top of mind for the kids.” What’s more, “they can’t really dispute the behaviours when they came up with the list in the first place.”

Arlene Knights, OCT, the school principal, says she trusts her teachers to introduce character traits and behaviours to the curriculum in their own way, as long as it aligns with her school’s and board’s plan.

“They can weave the traits into an English class, a science class or an after-school program,” she says. “The idea is to capitalize on teachable moments whenever they happen.”

Dubreuil agrees: Efficiencies accrue when you “piggyback character development onto programs like school safety or environmental awareness, as we do at our board.”

Driving forces

From the time of Plato, the student-teacher relationship has been seen as fertile ground for character development. But the notion that schools have a responsibility to shape character has gone in and out of favour.

“Values education was attempted in the 1970s, but it fizzled out,” says Avis Glaze, OCT, president of the Markham-based firm Edu-quest International (a consulting firm providing leadership to school systems worldwide) and a former senior adviser to Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

The reason? “The program used stories and exercises that frightened the kids – for example, deciding who they would throw overboard from a sinking lifeboat,” she says. “Parents started to complain, which got educators questioning whether schools should be teaching values in the first place.”

A similar US movement fell flat in the 1980s, says Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of character education at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and one of the experts on the Ontario Ministry of Education’s go-to list. “Religious groups opposed the idea of teaching values without a scriptural context,” he says.

At Kensal Park PS in London, older students look out for younger ones during lunchtime as part of Pee-Wee Pals – a Me to We program.

Combining fundraising and fun – all Junior students at Elizabeth Simcoe Junior PS visit the Haunted House that was created in Lisa Grant’s Grade 5/6 classroom.

When it comes to character development in Ontario schools, Glaze occupies a seat of honour. The idea began brewing in her mind in the late 1990s when she served as Associate Director of Education for the York Region DSB. “Bullying was a big issue, and violence was erupting in schools all over the world, including in my own community,” she says. “This gave me the idea that pro-social traits might be taught in a more systematic way.”

Not one to sit on abstractions for too long, Glaze pioneered a board-wide character-development program that inspired the entire community. Next thing she knew, Premier Dalton McGuinty was on the phone picking her brain about deploying similar programs throughout Ontario. Consultations were held across the province in the spring of 2007, culminating in the document Finding Common Ground (which Glaze co-authored with two other Ministry representatives) and the launch of character development as a province-wide initiative in 2007–08. “Experience has taught us that the disciplinary, punitive approach does not control school violence,” says Glaze. “Educators are ripe for something different.”

Keeping it real

People with experience in the field agree that didactic instruction and character development don’t mix well. Lecturing students doesn’t work. “It’s deadly boring and we all tune out,” says one Grade 7 student.

Even when their teachers get it right, kids tend to put on cynical airs as they grow older, says Grant, who has noticed some smart-mouthing about character traits crop up among her sixth graders.

“I deal with it by tapping into their creativity and sense of humour,” she says. Last year Grant encouraged her students to draw cartoons to express individual character traits, showcased the cartoons at a local coffee shop and invited parents to view their children’s work. “To illustrate respect, one child drew a picture of a group of elephants bowing to a monk,” says Grant. “It put a smile on people’s faces.”

Alfie Kohn, the renowned author and lecturer whose seminal 1993 book Punished by Rewards sent shock waves through education circles, worries that formal character education could leave students with an exaggerated respect for authority.

But Glaze is clear in rebutting this fear. “In Finding Common Ground we categorically state that character development is not about compliance. It’s about respectful questioning, critical thinking and fighting injustice. Creating automatons doesn’t mesh with the global requirements of the 21st century.”

Certainly, critical thinking underpins Thwaits’s approach to conflict resolution. In one of his exercises, students create a model of a refugee camp. “I give them resources and obstacles that create conflicts, like a disabled member, stolen goods or a natural disaster,” he explains. Through discussion, they solve problems of resource distribution, fairness, empathy and leadership. “The solutions always come from the students themselves – that’s key.”

Expanding resources

Teachers can tap into a growing array of programs – many designed by teachers – to develop character. Roots of Empathy, a K–8 program endorsed by Curriculum Services Canada, enlists a neighbourhood infant and parent to visit a classroom at regular intervals while a trained instructor coaches students to observe the baby and label its feelings.

“Even the rambunctious and fidgety kids developed a gentle touch with the baby by the end,” says Grant, whose class went through the program. The biggest take-home for the students: “How much work it takes to raise a child,” Grant says with a chuckle. “It gave them a new-found respect for what their own parents went through.”

A similar program, Who Is Nobody, has students take turns bringing home a gender-neutral denim doll – called Nobody – for a week at a time. Over the course of the year, the students transform Nobody into Somebody by teaching it to be a good person. (See Something from Nobody, page 53.)

Kelly Clark, OCT, Who Is Nobody’s developer and a former Toronto teacher, pinpoints “the prevailing confusion about how to build respect” as her impetus for creating the resource. “I wanted to give students a framework for using their own interests to help other people, so they could experience self-respect and respect for others in a personal, lasting way,” she says.

Teachers also use theatre productions as character-development tools. The Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People in Toronto chooses several of its plays with traits like honesty and co-operation in mind, says Artistic Director Allen MacInnis. In El Numero Uno, for instance, a central character lies about having bruised some vegetables; it then becomes his responsibility to get new vegetables to release the village from an evil spell.

“Drama grabs kids, so the message sticks,” says Grant, whose class attends a Kimsa production every year. The day after the event, “I sometimes have the kids write their own dramatic scripts based on some of the lessons they learned from the play. They rehearse their lines and put on a show.”

As students get older, character-development programs tend to focus more on outreach and fundraising, while discussions of character traits take a back seat. The Me to We program exemplifies this shift. “We meet once a week during lunch hour and discuss what projects we might want to undertake,” says Thwaits, who runs the Grade 6 to 8 program at his school. “Last week we launched a major fundraiser for Clean Water Ecuador. We’ve also done field trips to local food banks.”

Students at collège catholique Samuel-Genest in Ottawa imagine their ideal community and then choose projects they want to tackle – like helping out at the food bank.

At St. Patrick SS in the Thunder Bay Catholic DSB, students used a production of the play Annie as a springboard for raising funds, says the school’s drama teacher, Ryan McCullough, OCT. The play wasn’t selected at random. “Its themes raise a number of social issues, such as poverty, race, alcohol abuse, forgiveness and second chances,” he says.

With a boost from local radio and TV stations, the school sold out five shows. Students also sold T-shirts and hats and held a raffle. All told, the school raised an astonishing $30,000, all of it earmarked for the Regional Food Distribution Association. “It drew the school and community together,” says McCullough.

Henri Babin, OCT, has seen such community projects turn disadvantaged teens into community leaders. A Grade 9–12 teacher at collège catholique Samuel Genest in downtown Ottawa, Babin says his school has a sizeable population of needy students. “A few years ago, I and my colleagues had the idea to involve the students in helping the community,” he recalls. He started the ball rolling with a “visioning exercise” in which students “closed their eyes and imagined their ideal community.” Next, he says, “We selected student leaders and took them on a bus tour to identify our own community’s needs.” With some guidance from teachers, the students chose projects they wanted to tackle.

It didn’t take long before all this energy coalesced into a formal leadership course, which the school now offers after hours for one credit. “Students can design and participate in outreach projects as part of the course,” Babin explains, adding that “the course blends character development with entrepreneurship – the best of two worlds.” The Ministry has provided funding to enable the school to plan and launch individual projects, and the charitable organization Centraide awarded the 2009 Bâtisseur communautaire (Community Builder) prize to the course.

Bang for buck

Just about all educators give character development the thumbs-up. “In every school system I visited, the principals told me it improves attendance, attention and co-operative behaviour,” says Glaze, who also conducted a more formal evaluation in the Upper Canada DSB. “We gave questionnaires to principals and talked to community members,” she says. The verdict: “Suspensions were down and pro-social behaviour was up. Even the mayor noted a higher level of volunteerism from students.”

Results from the literature reflect Glaze’s experience. Berkowitz co-authored the 2005 report What Works in Character Education: A Research-Driven Guide for Educators, which summarizes and synthesizes 69 North American school studies. He says the studies show that character development can improve moral reasoning – assessed through before-and-after student questionnaires – and curb risk-taking behaviour such as unprotected sex.

“Suspensions were down and pro-social behaviour was up.”

Roots of Empathy, for its part, was found to mitigate violence and aggression.

“The most effective programs tend to have an interactive component, well-trained instructors and parental involvement,” Berkowitz notes. Overall, academic achievement ranked eighth on the list of improved outcomes, behind problem-solving skills, emotional competency and attachment to school.

MacNeil says the Ministry plans to conduct similarly detailed assessments of character development in Ontario. In the meantime, educators can take heart from Berkowitz’s 35 years of research and experience.

“If done well, it creates kinder, more socially conscious kids, though it may take a few years before you notice an impact on school culture,” he says. “It’s a long-term deal.”

Annual character conference

For the past five years character has been the subject of the National Character Education Conference sponsored by the Trillium Lakelands DSB. While geared primarily to educators, high school students may also attend, and this year 100 spaces were reserved for the general public.

Held in November at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, this year’s conference attracted several hundred participants from across the country. The pre-conference kickoff had two components: a youth conference and an educators’ conference showcasing presentations by environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki and über educator/author Dr. Phil Vincent.

“Suzuki’s presence brought an inspiring environmental component to the mix,” says Trillium Lakelands DSB communications officer Jeanne Pengelly. “The students responded with particular enthusiasm to his talk and had lots of questions for him.”

The main conference featured workshops on Internet safety, character building in the digital age and the impact of the physical environment on school culture, among others.

In one workshop, Imagine Your School, a team of presenters introduced an anti-bullying project implemented in Toronto DSB schools in Jamestown – one of the most vulnerable communities in Toronto. The panel’s conclusion: The best way to address school bullying is not by importing packaged programs but by “reculturing” the school.

“People leave the conference with a renewed commitment to character development,” says Pengelly, who attended this year’s conference. “It’s an energizing event.”

Selecting the traits

Character-development initiatives exist elsewhere, but in Ontario the character traits to be developed are not “handed down from Queen’s Park,” says education consultant Avis Glaze, OCT.

Instead, each school board generates its own list of traits. While boards can decide on as many or as few traits as they see fit, they often settle on 10, one for each month of the school year.

Unnecessary duplication of effort?

Hardly, says Jean Hanson, OCT, director of education at the Rainbow DSB in the Sudbury area. “We won’t get buy-in unless individual schools and communities can put their stamp on the process,” she says, noting that “values may differ among communities.” So far, school boards have generated their lists of traits in one of two ways: holding a public meeting with representatives from the school and community or conducting a public survey.

The Thames Valley DSB went the online-survey route, says Jim Copeland, OCT, Chair of Character Development at that board. Students and teachers were invited to respond in February 2009, the general public following suit in March. “We unveiled the final eight traits at a character fair in May.”

The Rainbow DSB, meanwhile, held a public meeting that included teachers, parents, youth agencies and students. “Things got interesting very quickly,” Hanson recalls. “What’s the difference between tolerance and inclusiveness? How are these traits manifested? Can happiness be considered a character trait? Or is making other people happy a trait? That’s the kind of discussion we had.”

While most boards select fairly similar traits, differences emerge.

The York Region DSB, for instance, ended up with respect, responsibility, honesty, empathy, fairness, initiative, courage, integrity, perseverance and optimism. The Toronto DSB shares seven of these traits with York region, but Toronto left out initiative, courage and optimism, opting instead for teamwork, co-operation, and kindness/caring.

Getting with the program

While educators have a lot of freedom in how they approach character development, common expectations are outlined in the 2008 Ministry of Education report Finding Common Ground. The key expectations include:

For teachers:

  • Model the character attributes selected by the community and use these to develop classroom behavioural expectations.
  • Embed character development in subject areas, extracurricular activities and school-wide programs.
  • Engage students in the creation of a caring, collaborative learning environment.
  • Provide the knowledge, skills and leadership development required for students to take on their expanded roles.

For principals:

  • Ensure that all members of the school community – students, teachers, parents and support staff – are engaged in developing and implementing the initiative.
  • Provide opportunities to engage students (particularly disengaged and marginalized students) in the initiative.
  • Provide professional learning opportunities for members of the school community in the area of character development.
  • Monitor and collect data on the effectiveness of  the initiative.


  • Bien-être@lecole : Financé par le ministère de l’Éducation de l’Ontario, ce groupe a élaboré un programme de prévention de l’intimidation pour que toute la communauté en profite.
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