WI high-schoolers get lessons on character from local business leaders

Business and marketing teacher Bridget Hubbard is leading a new effort at Wisconsin’s Onalaska High School that she’s hoping will change the dynamic for students, both before and after they graduate. The effort restores the primary purpose of character education to schooling and could lead students to lives of greater purpose.

“This is my 24th year of teaching—all at Onalaska High School—and this is the final click,” Hubbard told the La Crosse Tribune. “This is what they need to complete their education.”

Hubbard is partnering with local business leaders to implement a new curriculum called “Character Lives,” the latest in a growing movement to bring back character education, which was once a central part of a good education.

The effort will help students learn better ways of relating to others, important leadership skills, and other intangible measures of good character, such as kindness, service, empathy, and perseverance.

Student success after graduation is dependent on good character as much or more than good grades, she said. Hubbard and local business leaders are raising $600,000 to launch the Character Lives program at Onalaska High and nearly 20 other schools to ensure students are prepared when they receive their diploma.

“As we look at where everything is in the world, it all has come back to relationships, to listening,” Hubbard told the Tribune. “We learn how to listen.”

John Norlin, who helped design the Character Lives curriculum, agreed that if schools “only focus on end-of-year scores,” they’re selling students short.

“High intellect without character comes up short in the education process,” he said.

President Theodore Roosevelt put it another way: “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to create a menace to society.”

Education and character formation were historically considered inseparable, but more recently character education, seen as an individual matter, has dropped out of school curricula.

“Though character has usually been considered to be more social in its constitution—reflecting the ideas, institutions, and individuals who constitute a moral culture—it has in modernity come to be considered as . . . reflecting the personal choices, brain functioning, preferences, and/or ‘values’ of autonomous individuals,” Ryan Olson wrote in “Character Education,” published by Oxford University Press.

Patrick Clements, a retired Air Force colonel and president of Clements Management Consulting who is helping launch the Character Lives curriculum, believes that reinjecting character lessons into education will have a profound impact on not only the students themselves, but their communities as a whole.

“When students learn the value of kindness, service, and empathy, they don’t just walk out of school being competent at math and science—they walk away being capable, compassionate neighbors, workers, friends, and volunteers,” he told the Tribune.

Educating the whole student, Norlin said, will also have a serious impact on issues like bullying in schools, which is now mostly addressed through slogans and posters that only scratch the surface of the problem.

“In reality, we should flip it upside down and make intentional the teaching of strong relational skills and make it part of the culture,” he said.

High school educators could thicken their approach to character education by getting students to reflect on the purpose of their lives, as described in this exercise from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.