At Birchwood School of Hawken our starting point is recognizing that character development requires two components:
Teaching illuminates virtue. Children learn about virtue through the lives of virtuous people whether from history or current events. Through teaching, young students come to know what is good and visualize models of good. Training on the other hand forges habits of virtue over the course of time, and makes the teaching of virtue practical and real. Training realizes the lessons from teaching. Through training, students undertake responsibilities that can be fulfilled only through the exercise of virtue. Training forges habits, and habits are built upon sustained effort over time.
The teaching component of character development occurs specifically during morning “openings.” This is a daily 15-minute inspirational time where homeroom teachers use stories to highlight the lives of great men and women who have modeled virtuous behavior. Some stories focus on the work and achievements of famous individuals. Others describe the stories of ordinary people in our community whose good deeds are worthy to emulate. Stories carry the power to inscribe lifelong lessons on children’s hearts that abide and remain potent. Often we supplement these stories with proverbs and famous quotations that help to frame virtuous behavior into memorable language.
Stories alone are not sufficient to teach character. Expectations for good character must be a fabric of the school environment. Support for character lessons is found in the school’s ethos, a social/emotional environment that reinforces lessons about virtue and makes them real in the lives of children. The school ethos is the “greenhouse” for growing great children. Here a comprehensive approach to curriculum, discipline, and professional development coalesce into an atmosphere that celebrates high achievement and industry. It rewards social consciousness, care, and compassion. The schoolwide ethos is a culture built by teachers and supportive parents who, through their common aspirations and efforts, sustain a sprit de corps that celebrates, promotes, and rewards virtue and good deeds. Birchwood is a place where it is acceptable, it is “cool,” to work hard, persevere, excel academically, and become a productive young person. Just by being in the school environment, students are taught good character.
The teaching aspect of character development is supported and realized by the training aspect. Training begins with the school ethos described above. A healthy school atmosphere inspires good character. But training is primarily carried out through a rigorous academic program. In order to forge good habits, students must be placed at an instructional level that expects achievement commensurate with aptitude. Whether of average ability or exceptional ability, each child needs academic standards that are unattainable without hard work, self-discipline, and determination.
Meaningful academic achievement requires students to set goals, manage time, and organize work. Good habits are formed through practice – week-after-week, month-after-month, year-after-year. Very few children learn these lessons on their own. They need an environment and a training ground that forms habits and ultimately shapes character. Teaching and training for character is at the core of our mission. It defines why and how we discipline. It explains the place of our study skills program and why we emphasize a homework policy. It explains the purpose of our dress code and our emphasis on modest physical surroundings. Preserving the integrity of the school ethos is a major responsibility of the head of school and a responsibility of every staff member.