How Chicago area schools are making character a priority

Helping children become both good students and good people is more important than ever. Schools in the Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools know that character counts and they’re working to develop it in their students in meaningful ways.

Schools see kids’ character as an integral part of educating the whole child. “Who our kids become is more important than what anyone becomes,” says Noah S. Hartman, head of school at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. “Students can have all the intellectual knowledge in the world, but without the foundation of a strong character, it may not be put to the best use.”

Practicing grace and courtesy is an integral part of Montessori education and at Near North Montessori School in Chicago, Head of School Audrey Perrott says they take it a step further with their core values serving as a “wonderful moral compass.”

She stresses that developing kids’ character is good for the classroom, the school community and the world at large, and that students need to understand why. “It is important to not just teach respect and courtesy for the sake of being polite, but to explain there’s a reason why we need to do this. When it comes to character, students need to understand that their actions have an impact on someone else,” she says.

Independent schools work to instill in students the knowledge that they each have unique gifts and talents–and they need to put them to good use. Service to others is often an important component of character development and teaching kids to give back also means empowering them to use those gifts to make a difference.

“What can I do to help?” was a question that all schools encouraged their students both to ask and to answer with action. Students are taking the message to heart, with many schools sharing how students initiated fundraisers to help those impacted by recent hurricanes.

Christine Schmidt, principal at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, notes that while many schools have a service program, Woodlands’ approach to service requires students to delve deeper.

“It’s not just understanding social injustice. It’s about and seeing the larger world and asking what their role is and how they can make a difference. Our girls work to both understand the root cause of issues and act for change.” She cites the number of alums who go on to jobs with a focus on social justice and service as one indicator that students are internalizing that message.

Elgin Academy also encourages students to work towards understanding as a means of developing character. “We want students to leave here being productive, conscientious, mindful people who contribute positively to the world. It’s through conversations and relationships that they develop sensitivity and respect of different points of view,” says Lynn Martin, director of strategic marking and communications at Elgin Academy.

There are many benefits to developing kids’ character. Hartman says research points to an increase not only the likelihood of responsible behaviors but also improvement in student engagement and motivation. “We don’t want there to be a disconnect between academic learning and character education. There are ways to do both,” Hartman says.

“Developing kids’ character is the right thing to do, first and foremost. But there are also academic benefits that are the icing on the cake.”.

Schools also recognize that character development can take place anywhere and “extracurriculars provide an excellent venue in which to develop character traits,” says Carolyn Manley, school counselor at Science & Arts Academy in Des Plaines.

She says that even individual sports like cross country take on a team component and that “learning to work as a team, collaborating with others and creating relationships are just a few of the social-emotional skills that can be developed and enhanced by a teacher/advisor/coach who takes the time to maximize the extracurricular experience.”

At a recent cross country meet, the school’s team waited to support another school’s runner that was still on the course. The focus on character resulted in what Manley describes as “a wonderful moment of kindness, compassion, and true teamwork.”

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