STS Blog

Why Tomorrow's Leaders Need Character Education
Dr. Kirk Wheeler, Head of School


"Character is higher than intellect," argued Ralph Waldo Emerson. "A great soul will be strong to live, as well as think."

At St. Thomas School, character is one of the three pillars of our school, along with curriculum and community. We define character by a set of core virtues: gratitude, responsibility, respect, courage, integrity, tolerance, compassion, perseverance and generosity.

In decades past, many educators shied away from explicitly teaching character, relying instead on sets of rules for students to follow. At STS, we view character education as a vital part of our mission to help children live and lead generously. Our students are the future leaders of our communities, and ethical decision-making and a concern for others are core tenants of moral leadership.

Yes, students need to have a clear set of expectations, but they must also possess the character, the inner voice, and the necessary social and emotional skills to navigate a complex 21st century world with integrity and grace.

Globalization presents moral challenges

A healthy society thrives on civic virtue and moral conduct – look no farther than the founding fathers' declaration of the importance of character education in maintaining our democracy. But the founders couldn't have anticipated the challenges that children today face in an increasingly global and connected society.

From climate change to cyberbullying, our students face very real challenges and are on the cusp of entering a complex world in which they will be trusted to make decisions that impact communities, both local and global. As our future leaders, character will be at the center of those decisions.

Undoubtedly, the 21st century presents us with ethical challenges on a global scale. From economic crises, poverty and social unrest to political upheaval, our world is rapidly changing, and these changes are accelerated by technology and globalization. While policies and procedures can certainly help us address these issues, a moral compass is key to helping us navigate unprecedented challenges.

"The trends that are shaping the 21st century world embody both promise and peril. [...] The scale and complexity of the challenges that lie ahead are undoubtedly daunting," argues Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. "But rapid, far-reaching change can also present great opportunities."

I firmly believe that when our children know how to act with character, they are better equipped to harness these opportunities and be a force for good in an increasingly complex world.

Effective leaders are guided by strong character

As we aim to empower students to become tomorrow's leaders, we know that strong character is at the heart of history's most inspiring leaders. Consider the historical figures who inspire you, and chances are they are remembered for their integrity, compassion, and perseverance in the face of obstacles and complex decisions.

In a landmark study of nearly 200 large global companies published in Harvard Business Review, psychologist Daniel Goleman found something surprising. While effective leaders almost unanimously possess intelligence and vision, they are most strongly defined by their emotional intelligence. In other words, strong leaders are distinguished by their empathy and social skills.

Leaders who act with integrity, instill trust in their teams, and are able to step into others' shoes are more likely to enact significant positive change.

Character needs to be taught

The word "character" is derived from the Greek word charattein, which means to engrave. Character isn't stagnant – it evolves and changes. As children embrace life, both inside and outside the classroom, these experiences are engraved and become patterns for future actions and decisions. Character is formed day by day, and requires explicit teaching, as well as reflection on experiences and choices.

Carol Dweck, in her blog on Leadership: Mistakes, Mindset and Character writes, "In a fixed mindset, character is about being omniscient and infallible. In a growth mindset, though, character is about owning up to your mistakes, shortcomings, and ignorance – and doing something about it."

Just as we're intentional about teaching academic skills and content, we must also be deliberate about teaching students what it means to act with character. Children benefit from explicit instruction, clear expectations, and opportunities to practice. Teaching character is no different from teaching academic skills in that regard and, I argue, it is just as important.

As articulated by Tammy Fisher (our school counselor) in an upcoming blog, "Armed with a growth mindset, we separate behaviors from a child – and recognize that the child is communicating in an unskilled way, rather than it being a fixed trait of their personality. Through this mindset, core character qualities such personal responsibility, self-control, respect, integrity, perspective taking, teamwork, and social-awareness can be built."

Through STS's Leadership Lab, Second Step curriculum, Life Skills Curriculum, and our preschool – 8th grade community, our students learn how to behave ethically and serve as leaders. Our teachers are also trained in the Nurtured Heart Approach, a relationship-focused methodology that helps students harness intense emotions to promote positive outcomes.

Character development also infuses daily life at STS – from math and English class to lunch, where students practice manners and learn about environmental stewardship. We encourage students to understand others' perspectives and expand their capacity for empathy every day.

It takes a village.

As we help prepare students to become leaders in the broader local and global communities, it's incumbent on us to instill a sense of ethical responsibility, and we view parents as critical partners in this important work. We know that parents and families set powerful examples for children, and we're grateful to partner with parents as children develop their moral compasses.

As a community of parents and educators, we also agree to abide by a set of core values. Through age-appropriate education and partnership with families, we are committed to ensuring that our graduates have a moral voice that guides them long after they leave our classrooms and become our future leaders.