Growing character

Stuart Rimmer is the Principal and Chief Executive Officer of Great Yarmouth College and runs Inception Coaching, providing leadership development to individuals, groups and companies. Here he talks to us about the importance of character.

One of the things that a truly excellent school or college does is teach the development of character. This could be taught as part of the curriculum or through the curriculum. Whichever approach is taken, it is vitally important that we support young and older students alike to explore and develop character.

What is character?

Character can be defined as the sum of the mental and moral qualities that are distinctive to an individual. Often people talk about others by saying they are of “good character”. I am sure that we all want to be described in this way, I know I do! So given this, what do we mean by good character? 

As the principal of a college, my own view is that someone with good character is someone who is definitely not perfect but demonstrates certain qualities that are admirable; someone who we look up to. They are qualities that we would often like for ourselves: self-control, the ability to bounce back when things get tough (also known as resilience), being optimistic, being grateful and the ability to stay the course. They are the students and staff who are fully engaged in college and school life, people who know when to seek help, look beyond their “remits” for the benefit of others and make an effort to connect to our community. 

Why is character important?
It is our challenge, ultimately, as educators, to teach our students more than just skills and knowledge. Colleges play a huge role in helping our students develop and display character. I would argue that we should value these aspects of education as much as the “technical” skills we teach. 

Why? Ultimately they are what will help us become happy human beings. If we demonstrate and develop positive character traits, we will have better relationships, be more optimistic in life, and be able to ride out the bumps in the road. Not only will our wellbeing improve, but research tells us that our chances of higher wage earnings and career successes are enhanced too. This begins to feel like an obvious and essential step.

Can character skills be taught?
So can character be taught or are we just born with it? Well, the research suggests that around 50% of character is established at birth. Some people are inherently more optimistic than others, for example. But the other 50% is entirely down to nurture. A person’s character can then be considered a reflection of their choices. It is led by the decisions that they make. 

We must at this point be careful - character must be authentic and not forced. You cannot pretend to be committed or kind for long before the cracks begin to show. We shouldn’t expect everyone to display leadership in the same way or to take the same approach when showing kindness and compassion. All of us must work these elements out for ourselves.

Teaching character development is difficult. Our innovative wellbeing programme at our college, and good, strong teaching by experienced role models that live the values of our college, helps makes this happen. 

One of the key learning points of life is that there are no short cuts. Just hard work and commitment. It is difficult in modern times to retain a firm focus on what is important, with 24/7 media, mobile phones, and “weapons of mass distraction”.  Never before has it been so difficult for a generation. But demonstrating resilience through tough times will certainly help students grow. Perhaps “the school of hard knocks”, combined with a safe college environment has much to offer. I am very proud of every one of my students who stay the course and are successful. They are demonstrating the grit and determination that they will need throughout life. 
William Channing wrote “the great hope of society is in individual character”. I believe that the character developed in schools and colleges impacts hugely on our wider society. Yes, technical skills are important, particularly when job hunting,  but let us not overlook good character. It is this which will help us far more to be successful in our communities as neighbours, brothers, sisters, parents, co-workers and community leaders. 
I encourage every one of my students to find a role model. Someone who they can look up to. They might be world famous or simply live on their street. Someone who demonstrates the character that we can admire. Becoming proactive in developing character with as much energy as is put into acquiring technical skills, is essential. As one of my personal role models, John Wooden says “Ability may get you to the top but character will keep you there”. 

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