Catching Character: Teachers as Honorary Dads

This past weekend, fathers were honored with steak dinners, homemade cards, and thoughtful gifts. Great dads are worthy of gratitude for sure—and so are the men, including teachers, who make sacrifices for children who aren’t their own.


Consider Vohn Lewis, a substitute teacher in Virginia. Right before the fifth-grade graduation at George Mason Elementary, a boy’s shoe came apart. Lewis realized that glue wasn’t going to solve the problem, so he took off his own shoes and let the boy wear them so he could receive his diploma in style.


“Me being me, sometimes my heart leads me to certain situations,” Lewis told WTVR. “I said you can wear my shoes, man; I wear a size 10.”


Or consider Nathan Miller of Clark Middle/High School, who noticed that the desks assigned to his middle school classroom were insufficient for the experiments he wanted students to conduct. The school didn’t have funds for new furniture, so Miller went about fashioning lab tables himself, retrofitting discarded computer desks. He realized over time that the steel-tubed frames he first constructed weren’t sturdy enough, and he has slowly replaced each frame with a wooden one.


“When people like Mr. Miller are sourcing their own things to bring a better science environment, it really shows what kind of a person he is and how much he cares about our kids,” said Assistant Principal Lauren Dado.


Not only do acts of kindness like these provide kids with things they need—they also give them striking models of what it means to be a good person. It’s great to tell kids that kindness and self-sacrifice are important, but it’s even better to show them. As James Baldwin famously said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”


This process has been referred to as “catching” by James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In The Content of Their Character, a collection of case studies of character formation in American high schools, they write that

the articulation of a moral culture through explicit teaching is important…. What these case studies also consistently show is the importance of the informal articulation of a moral culture through the example of teachers and other adults in the school community.

And when those adults’ actions include kindness and care, strong connections are formed. Teacher Rene Trevino, a first-generation American who remembers the challenges of working while attending school, teaches science during the school year at an elementary school and during the summer at a gifted and talented camp. He has made a special commitment to kids from low-income and single-parent families; he said students sometimes slip and call him “Dad.”


“I don’t mind,” Trevino told The Monitor. “We grow strong bonds together.”


Such bonds provide kids with support and encouragement they may not receive at home; a loving connection also increases the potential impact on shaping character, as kids want to emulate those they admire. As Hunter and Olson note in their discussion of catching,

For this reason, identifying and hiring the right teachers—those who are both knowledgeable and skilled as teachers but also models of the virtues the schools wanted to instill—was a vital concern in all of the schools [studied].

To the teachers who act as honorary dads and to the principals who help hire them—many of whom are modeling strong character without even realizing it—we say “thank you.”