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Born again character education teacher: a math teacher's journey.

In the Beginning ...

"The best thing about the future is it comes one day at a time."

--Abraham Lincoln

I was destined to be a teacher; I just did not realize it until I grew up. My mother was a teacher. My uncle was a teacher. My best friend's mother was a teacher. These were all people I looked up to and truly appreciated. I remember watching my mother work late every night and give so much heart and love to her students. As a youngster, a teenager, and a young adult, I remember thinking that I could never enjoy a job like hers. She worked so hard, yet we lived so modestly. I never realized the riches she gained from her job as first grade teacher.

It was not until my fourth year at Wright State University that I realized I had a passion for teaching; more so, I had a passion for guiding and connecting. Looking back now, it all seems so obvious. I had spent the previous 5 years coaching, teaching swim lessons, training life guards, and working with youngsters at a recreation center. Once I had this epiphany, I quickly enrolled in Wright State's education program and eventually made my way into the teaching profession.

My first 2 years of teaching were fantastic. I was blessed with amazing students and an unbelievable staff. At the time, teaching seemed simple, basic, dare I say easy? I worked hard, my students worked hard, and success was evident through their good grades and their excellent behavior. I was good! At the beginning of my third year, I was very confident in my abilities, and I was looking forward to another year of brilliant success. This third year of teaching marked the start of the most challenging 3 years in my teaching career. I could no longer connect with my students, their grades began to dip, discipline became a growing problem, and I felt completely lost. I thought I knew what I was doing as a teacher. I thought I had a clear direction. I thought I knew my students. I thought I knew myself. I was learning quickly that I had a lot to learn, and this became a precursor of what was about to come.

I hit rock bottom my sixth year of teaching. In an act of desperation, I humbly went to my assistant principal to ask for help. I told him I had lost my ability to teach and to control my classroom. I kept to myself the true feeling of despair I felt; I knew I wanted to leave the profession. I began considering my options and strongly contemplated changing career paths to an occupation in the housing market.

The Day That Changed My Life

"It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light."

--Aristotle Onassis

The following year our district brought in a gentleman by the name of Hal Urban to speak to us about character education. Hal was a retired teacher from the San Francisco area, known to some as one of the leaders in the character education movement, and known to thousands of former students simply as Mr. Urban. To me, Hal will forever be known as the savior that opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. Hal showed me how to become a better teacher, a better colleague, a better communicator, and simply a better person. Up until this point, I was doing my best to teach the curriculum to my students. Sure, I would correct inappropriate behavior when incidents occurred, I helped students through some of their emotional struggles, and I would give guidance as to making better choices, but I was mostly driven by the state standards. I believed my success as an educator was completely correlated to my students' academic successes. Hal taught me there was so much more to an education, than the knowledge of math standards I was hired to teach. Hal taught me how to care for the people around me, how to really care. He showed me how to bring out the best in my students academically, socially, and emotionally. He showed me how to create a community in my classroom, how to encourage positive behaviors, and how to rid my classroom of the poisons that had been polluting it for the last several years. Hal taught me about an initiative simply known as character education.

I was hooked! The very next day I began putting his Life's Greatest Lessons into practice. I taught my students about manners, we talked about good character traits, and we discussed what we wanted from our class. I did not realize it then, but we were having a class meeting for the first time in my classroom. My students could not get enough and neither could I! Together we began composing a list of what behaviors we wanted in our classroom and a separate list of what behaviors we did not want anymore. What I found interesting was the similarities all of the classrooms shared, while at the same time each of them had class specific expectations that reflected the behaviors common for their specific period. As the year progressed, I could actually see a climate change in my room. The students were happier to be there, learning became more structured, and I became more caring and approachable.

I was so excited about the changes occurring before my eyes that I had to share with my colleagues. To my surprise and excitement, I found out I was not alone. Many of the teachers at Ankeney Middle School were practicing some of the techniques taught by Hal, and I discovered a core group of faculty members were coming together to spearhead our very own character education movement!

Throughout the remainder of that first year of teaching character, I tried to construct my own character education program within my classroom. I focused completely on the moral aspect of character education. We spent the first week of school building a sense of community within the classroom by establishing boundaries and expectations, while learning how to become more considerate, respectful, kind, compassionate, and helpful. Although most of the students had learned these behaviors at home, reteaching these values in my class showed the students that the expectations at home were also important at school. As with any large group of children, there were some that were learning these specific ethics and expectations for the first time. Because of their inexperience with this topic, I needed to be specific, offering and asking for anecdotes as we learned. For example, it was not enough to say "The use of foul language is not acceptable in this classroom." I needed to have an open discussion as to what "foul language" was. Sometimes we would disagree about the severity of a "foul" word. Many students believed "crap," "oh my God," and "sucks" were completely acceptable. To prove my point, I picked a student and asked if he would be embarrassed if I said the following to his parents at a conference (even if the content was actually true): "Sir, I find it is my place to let you know that your son's attitude in math absolutely sucks! I look at the work he does and it is absolute crap! Oh my God! What are we going to do with little Johnny?" With eyes wide open and jaw gently resting on the floor, my student said he understood my point. We came to an agreement that certain words do not belong in the classroom, as well as many other places.

The Power of Quotes and Questions of the Day (Let the Kids Be Heard)

"The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation."

--Isaac D'Israeli

Entering my second year as a character educator, I was becoming concerned about how I could possibly find more time to add new character lessons to teach while following a busy math curriculum. While reading one of my many Hal Urban books, Positive Words, Positive Results, it struck me. One way to immerse my students into lessons about good morals was to present a meaningful quote of the day at the start of each class. In order to add some substance to the storied words I was sharing, I thought it would be important to have a brief discussion about the quotes. My students enjoyed hearing the unique quotes each day, though their true enjoyment came from the discussion that would follow. For example, I might share this quote by Thomas Paine at the start of class: "Character is much easier kept than recovered." I would then ask my students the following question: "What do you think Thomas Paine meant?" I could also go with this quote by Stephen Covery at the start of class: "I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decision. " I would go on to ask my students: "Do you agree with Mr. Covey? Why?" Young people have incredible insight, and it is a joy to tap into it. Due to the high volume of requests, I also added a picture and history to the author of each quote. Students enjoy seeing a face with a quote, and it is important to understand the context of the quotes.

Praising Students--Our Words Have Power

"We are prepared for insults, but compliments leave us baffled."

--Mason Cooley

"I never get tired of hearing compliments."

--John Lithgow

At the end of the second year, I began to reevaluate the direction of my pedagogy. While I was doing a sufficient job teaching my students different core values, I realized I was not recognizing the efforts made by my students to act on these values. One of the most basic needs of all human beings is to be appreciated. Another basic need we all would like filled is to feel like a normal, contributing member of a community. As a teacher of seventh grade students, I realized that I had an awesome power within me to meet both of these needs for each of my students throughout the school year. Public praise was an amazing way to show my students what they are doing well, as well as showing the rest of the class what good work and good behavior looks like. I can present this praise in many different forms. One of the methods I have used is simply giving a genuine compliment that thanks my student for her specific action. For example, I might say something like this: "Jenny, I want to thank you for using your manners during class. When you want to speak, you quietly raise your hand and wait to be called upon. I really appreciate your patience and respect for others." This basic compliment affirmed Jenny's behavior, while simultaneously encouraging others to act in a similar fashion. Another form of public praise I liked to use is posting good work on my Wall of Fame. I began by showing former students' work, which I deemed as good work, gave my current students an idea of what quality work looks like. As the year progressed, I encouraged the students to do their very best and to model the work that has been shown to them. Students that were proud of their work were able to add their work to our Wall of Fame. I wanted them to take some ownership and pride in their work. I strongly believed it was critical that students became capable of recognizing their own good work, and allowing students to proudly display their good work for others to view was a fantastic way to recognize their hard work.

Communication With Parents (Private Praise)

That same year I formed a habit to look for the good in all of my students. I set a goal to reach out to as many of them as I could with a simple letter titled "Caught Being Good." Within the confines of these notes I tried to give the most thoughtful, caring, heartfelt, and authentic praise for the hard work each of my students was doing in every realm of the classroom. I had no idea how impactful these simple, handwritten letters could be, but they were the private praise that each of my youngsters absolutely yearned for secretly. Two years ago I decided to reach out to my former students' parents. I was able to e-mail those who were in my class over the past 5 years. I wanted to know how I did as a teacher and how my use of character education impacted their children. The most common feedback I received was for the positive communication I kept with them, specifically these simple notes. One of the parents told me her daughter (Kelsey) promptly placed her note front and center in the middle of her refrigerator, where it remained for some time as a reminder of the amazing person she had become. Students live up to the remarks you make about them. If we focus our comments on their positive and morally good traits, we will be pleasantly surprised to see our students' work extra hard to live up to the image we have of them. To this day, I still receive e-mails and letters from former students sharing their successes. The thing they all remember from my math class is how I made them feel about themselves.

Class Meetings and Surveys (Let the Kids Be Heard!)

Like most teachers, I always thought I ran a good program and the students were happy about the class and about me. Wow, I could not have been farther from the truth! At the start of my third year teaching character, I decided to set up a small survey just to see how I was doing. I made sure the students were able to answer my questions anonymously in the hopes of receiving some honest answers. They did not let me down. I was given honest feedback about everything from my pace, my homework load, my seating arrangements, and even about my sarcasm. Some of the feedback I received was expected, but the comments about my sarcasm were unexpected. Were there students in my class being offended without my knowledge, and I was the cause? This revelation broke my heart but opened my eyes. I had no idea what kind of damage a little sarcasm could do, but my students taught me firsthand that it was unwelcomed and I have since eliminated this behavior from my class. Asking for honest feedback can be difficult to endure; however, you cannot grow as an educator or as a person without knowing the truth.

Since my initial survey, I have made several adaptations to help me make the most out of this authentic and individual exchange. I now use an online survey program, called Survey Monkey, to address my pressing questions. By using an online survey, I am able to receive immediate feedback, and I can ask questions that allow for trends to be tallied instantly. I now send surveys to my students' parents as well. The honesty and sincerity of their responses is quite refreshing. While they have the opportunity to use my surveys as a forum to "let me have it," they have been considerate throughout the process even when giving me constructive criticism.

In the spring of this third year, I found myself having a conversation with several of my female students, and they shared with me the rude behaviors of their male peers. "The boys are constantly making jokes about our weight and our appearance. While we know boys will be boys, their words really hurt. Can you please help us, Mr. Schumacker?" I was not quite sure how I should handle such a delicate, yet impactful situation. Character education gurus like Berkowitz, Lickona, and Davidson have been huge proponents of class meetings: A simple strategy of setting aside time for students to discuss classroom issues as a group. Although I was unsure of trying this strategy, especially with such a taboo topic, I held my first intentional class meeting as a result of this plea. Through this dialogue process, the boys were able to really see the negative power of their words and the damage they were causing. The girls were able to gain some insight about the thinking of adolescent boys as well as form a tighter bond with the other girls, for they discovered they had more in common than ever expected. Since then, I have made it a common practice to hold class meetings to deal with everything from cheating, stealing, work load, classroom behavior, and even home life. Our meetings brought us closer together and showed the students they are worth the time it takes to listen to them.

Performance Versus Moral Character--Their Marriage

Perhaps the most important day of my teaching career took place November 2, 2007. On this day I had the privilege to listen to Matthew Davidson and Thomas Lickona share their findings from their Smart and Good High Schools study at the Character Education Partnership conference in Washington, DC. More specifically, I was first introduced to the term performance character and have been a changed teacher since. Davidson and Lickona explained the importance and benefits of the marriage of moral and performance character.

"Goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous. Both united form the noblest character and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind."

--John Phillips

Moral character refers to the intangibles of moral excellence--integrity, honesty, concerns for others, and for justice (as described by Davidson). To this date I had been using many tools to help improve my students' moral character, and as a result, my classes have transformed into warm, nurturing settings populated by students who were beginning to put the needs of others before the needs of themselves.

Performance character refers to the knowledge, habits, and dispositions necessary for success in sport, school, the work place, and other performance contexts (as described by Davidson). I never realized this component to character education even existed, but it was exactly what I had been unknowingly searching for all of these years.

I came home from this conference with a sense of renewal I hadn't felt for so long. I was filled with ideas, excitement, and the courage to make major changes to my math classroom! At this point, I felt as if I had a good moral character education curriculum in my classroom, but I wanted to marry it to a solid performance character education curriculum. In order to make this change, I needed to identify what areas of improvement to focus on in order to help my students reach these improvements. The main keys to success I decided to focus on were: goal setting, revisions, and goal partners.

Goal Setting

As disappointing as it might seem, many of my students only aspired to mediocrity. They focused on doing the minimum, finishing quickly, and avoiding extensive thinking. Therefore, we began the school year focusing on our dreams, our goals, and the realm of possibilities that are abundant around us.

Entering the second quarter of my fourth year teaching character, I asked my students to think of the highest quarter grade they believed they could achieve in my class if they did all of their work, asked lots of questions, paid attention, and vowed to do their best. I explained to my students that anything was possible if we gave it our all, and then I told them the grade they came up with was now their academic goal. By definition, goals are dreams with deadlines. In order to reach our goals, we need to come up with a plan to achieve them and a date to review how we have done.

Once each student committed to a goal, the next step was to create a plan to help him reach his objective. Like the goal, the plan needs to be specific and personal to each student. One student wrote she would "earn a 95% by completing all of my work on time, revising assignments with scores less than an A, asking questions, and completing my reviews when preparing for chapter tests" If she stuck to this plan, there would be no reason she could not reach her goal! She was able to reach her goal in two of the remaining three quarters of the school year.

As I entered my fifth year of teaching character, I knew I wanted to make some adjustments to build on the previous year's success. I tried to set incentives to help entice my students to reach their goals. At the end of each quarter, any student reaching his/her goal received an amazing special treat, usually baked, or extra credit to be used later in the year. As a youngster growing up, my teachers always provided our classes with incentives; therefore, I thought I should provide incentives to induce my students to work harder. This choice really threw a wrench in the works. I found myself rewarding some students that set much lower goals and NOT rewarding those students that just missed their loftier goals. As the year came to a close, I knew I had made a mistake. Many of my driven students became resentful that they were working hard to earn solid A's, often times falling a point short; while many of their peers were being rewarded for receiving low Bs in our class. It became such an issue that the driven students soon started asking to lower their goals so they could enjoy the same rewards as the rest of the class. In theory, this seemed like a great idea to me, however the end result was not what I was striving to reach. A few years later, after reading Berkowitz's (2012) book You Can't Teach Through A Rat, I decided to remove all incentives like stickers, treats, and extra credit from my room. I will occasionally give treats and stickers, but it is to reward the entire class or to celebrate some sort of accomplishment. It will never be a means to an end in my class again. My students have never once complained about not receiving extra credit or those treats since I removed them.

Goal Partners

After the inception of goal setting in our classroom, I knew I needed to figure a way to support the students in reaching their goals. I explained to my classes that when working out, I exceeded my expectations when I had a lifting buddy. The reason I performed at a higher level was because my partner made me accountable to my goals and he encouraged me to push myself, as I did for him. Although my students were more mathletes than weight lifters, they understood the connection and the concept of Goal Partners was born.

Entering the sixth year of teaching character, students were given the opportunity to choose a goal partner from their class. The purpose of the goal partner is to have another person who holds you accountable for your goals, offers suggestions on how to reach them, and praises you for progress. I explained to the students, "Being a goal partner is a contract that needs to be taken very seriously. If your partner fails, it is your failure as well if you have done nothing to help remedy your partner's problem."

At first, the goal partners met each week. After the first quarter, during a class meeting, it was disclosed that the classes did not like this frequency of meeting times. We then decided to have the goal partners meet every other week to review their Goals and Accomplishments Sheets and celebrate each other's accomplishments. Each signs off on the other's sheet to show that they agree with what has been recorded. The Goals and Accomplishment Sheets are then taken home for parents to sign, so I know they have reviewed it with their children. This proved to be a great way to keep the students focused and the parents informed.


"Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did."

--Newt Gingrich

My earliest memory of frustration in math came from thinking I did well on an assignment, only to have done poorly. The fact that I received a bad grade was not what discouraged me; rather it was knowing there was nothing I could do about it. As a result, I would discard the paper and move on. In essence, I was learning a quitter mentality.

In my classroom, I have many "motivational" posters in the front of the room. The most important poster I have simply says OPPORTUNITY. My students have the opportunity to reach any goal they might cultivate. How is this possible? I allow my students to revise their work. This practice is the core of what I learned from Davidson and Lickona. I began allowing my students to revise their work the week after returning home from that life-changing conference.

My revision policy has been an evolution, to say the least. When I returned from the CEP conference back in 2007, I wanted to jump in with both feet! I came up with the idea of allowing my students to revise their work; however, they had to follow some guidelines. After grading an assignment, students were then given the opportunity to redo the entire assignment in the effort to earn a higher grade and to have a firmer understanding of the material. Since this was new and unique, my students gladly obliged. We discovered some flaws immediately. Redoing the entire assignment to correct a few missed problems did not seem worth the effort. My students have lives outside of school, and giving them only one day to revise an assignment was a bit extreme. So I did what any good teacher would do; I made adjustments. Unfortunately, I went too far in the other direction. I extended the revision period from one day to the end of the quarter. As you might expect, many of my kids waited until the end of the quarter to complete all of their revisions. There had to be a better way. I needed to strike a compromise with myself.

After a class meeting and much thought, I finally made some changes that would go on to stick to this very day. My students may now revise any completed assignment before the end of the current chapter. The expectation then evolved to only revising problems missed on the original assignment, this time using additional resources like watching my math videos, asking for help, utilizing their notes, or working with another student. I then promised to grade the revisions that night and return them to the class the next day. Students could revise assignments as many times as needed, until complete understanding is accomplished. As simple as this process might seem, the results were and still are astounding. One of the students from this inaugural group put it best when she said "I never thought of myself as an 'A' student, but now I want nothing less."

During my 2013-2014 school year, I added a new step in our revision process. After we grade an assignment in class, students work with their learning pod to try to understand what they did wrong on missed problems. The goal of this change is to form an "other study." I want the students to help each other understand their mistakes so they can have more success making corrections. My hope is this will encourage more students to revise their work voluntarily. Providing this step gives the students a real opportunity to teach and learn from one another. Student growth is inevitable.

Teaching Kids to Care (Character Challenge)

For the next 2 years, years 7 and 8 of teaching character, my focus seemed to be primarily on the growth of my students' performance character. I was thrilled with the progress we were making in the classroom; however, Marvin Berkowitz kindly reminded me that I needed to have a good balance between performance and moral character. I took his words very seriously and began to do some soul searching. I wanted to help form the complete child who is hard working AND good natured. I needed to find a way to teach my students to become better citizens. As I looked at my students I could tell they were kind and considerate in my classroom and they were doing a much better job at showing respect to each other. This behavior was great; however, I was looking for more. I wanted to teach them to intentionally go out of their way to make a difference in someone else's life.

During the second week of school of my ninth year of teaching character, I decided to have a class meeting with my students. I asked them to take a moment to think of the person in their lives that meant the most to them, the one they were so thankful to have as a friend or family member. I said to them, "Chances are some of the traits you would use to describe your friend would be dependable, thoughtful, helpful, respectful, and selfless." At that very moment, I decided that one of the greatest gifts I could give my students was the knowledge and the ability to become this person! At this moment came the inception of the year-long activity that would allow us to accomplish this goal, and it was coined The Character Challenge.

That weekend I began to compose a list of challenges that I could use over the course of a year with my students. My initial plan was to present a new challenge to my students each day and encourage them to complete it. I shared this plan with Tom Lickona, and he had some words of wisdom for me. He first showed a genuine appreciation for my proposal and even offered a few new challenges for me to consider. What he said next made all the difference though; he suggested that rather than complete a daily challenge, I might want to consider proposing a new challenge each week. This way I could truly teach my students how to complete each challenge well.

Excited with the new direction of The Character Challenge, I quickly shared the news with my classes and explained I would like to start immediately. The very first challenge I offered was: Try to give a good compliment to three different people this week. Your kind and uplifting words make more of a difference than you could possibly imagine. Show staff and students that at AMS, character counts!

Through some trial and error that year, I learned a few keys to reap the most out of The Character Challenge. First and foremost, I learned to not assume my students knew the key components of any of my challenges. I had to take time to teach them every aspect of the challenge and provide them as many details and examples as I could to ensure a deep understanding of the task. In the challenge listed above, I needed to teach the students what "good" compliments looked like. I provided several examples of surface compliments (You're a great friend) and compared them to deep, meaningful compliments (You are such a fun and creative person. I always enjoy being around you because you always make everyone feel better about themselves). I find it is helpful to try out each of my challenges, myself, before issuing them to the class. By taking this extra step, I am able to discover any possible obstacles as well as providing more meaningful examples.

What Is My Value?

"A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles."

--Christopher Reeve

Over the last 2 years, I have experienced several changes in my teaching environment. Among the changes have been the new Common Core curriculum, an extremely rigorous PARCC Assessment, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, and, to top it off, I began teaching a new grade level/curriculum last year. Now the state and the district can publicly rate and evaluate me based on the test score growth of my students.

I was left with a dilemma: Do I stick with my core values and keep teaching moral ethics to my students, or do I focus solely on the Common Core and abandon character education? Due to the vast amount of pressure that surrounded me to "score well," I chose the latter and not a day goes by that I have not regretted this choice.

I no longer sent home "Caught Being Good" letters. I no longer taught and promoted weekly character goals. I no longer gave students time with their "goal partners" to work creating and reaching personal goals. I no longer provided an inspirational quote of the day to discuss. I was no longer a complete teacher; I had become a teacher completely focused on test scores.

I lost sight of the values I so carefully crafted over the last decade. I abandoned the faith I had in teaching the whole student; instead I focused exclusively on the academic growth of the child. What good is it to teach students the tools needed to be successful if you fail to teach them how to use these tools properly? It becomes a very dangerous quandary when you focus only on one's academic excellence and fail to teach the child how to be a good person. Teddy Roosevelt said it best, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."

As the first semester came to a close last year, I was overwhelmed with sadness as I noticed what had happened to me as a teacher. For the first time in a decade, I felt disconnected with my kids. We were no longer working as a team to achieve academic and behavioral goals. Rather I had become more of a disciplinarian; and I actually found myself allowing sarcasm to creep back into the classroom. Last spring I received the results of my Ohio Achievement Assessments' test scores. My students reached the academic goals set by the state, and my new eighth graders showed a lot of growth from seventh grade. I should have been thrilled with my test results, though somehow I feel like I let my students down. We passed the state's test, but I failed my students. Although reaching academic success is certainly important in the classroom, it is only one measure of a truly successful class. It is equally, if not more important, to teach my class how to be kind, respectful, trustworthy, caring, hard working. Academic success is an end result of a journey. The actual journey itself is what is important. I failed my students by not providing the rich and meaningful journey I had grown so accustomed to giving my classes.

I will never abandon character education again. I have now seen and felt the vast emptiness of its absence. On a positive note, I think this was a much needed experience to wake me up as an educator. It gives me a sense of the importance character education has in my classroom and in my life. It will provide me the drive to improve as a teacher. When I was being evaluated last spring, by our new principal, I caught myself saying "I normally do this" or "I used to that." The removal of character education affected me on my evaluation as well. Wow! What a great lesson learned! From this day forth, I vow to remain committed to the real needs of my students. Seventeen years of experience has taught me those needs are the development of academics and the growth of a strong moral compass.

Mark Schmacker

Ankeney Middle School, Beavercreek City Schools

Acknowledgments: Carol Brown (fellow educator) and Marvin Berkowitz provided very helpful comments on previous drafts and helped me finalize my story. This article is based on my journey to bring character education back to my mathematics classroom.


Berkowitz, M. W. (2012). You can't teach through a rat. Boone, NC: Character Development Group.

Urban, H. (2004). Positive words, powerful results. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

* Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Mark Schumacker, mark.schumacker@
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Author:Schmacker, Mark
Publication:Journal of Character Education
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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