In addition to my job as Director of District Partnerships at TransformEd, I have been, for a number of years, a project scholar for the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Virginia. There, I work with a variety of scholars to explore how U.S. high schools, including private, religious, independent, charter and public schools, approach character development among their students. My specific work has focused on the rural public-school sector (as defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics), about which I wrote a chapter that was recently published in Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. It consists of descriptive analysis of student character formation at six rural public high schools in the United States during the 2014–2015 and 2015–2016 school years. The analysis is based on classroom observation, school documents, and administrator, parent, teacher, and student interviews.
A Sense of Community in Rural Schools
This chapter explores the unique aspects of a rural community culture—such as a deep pride in community and country, and a strong sense of belonging—and how they align with student experiences that make up a school’s culture and climate. A principal at one rural high school said:
I think that everyone needs to feel like if they’re a part of something that matter. I think a sense of belonging gives you, you mentioned earlier, a confidence in the fact that “I matter, I belong. This is part of where I go, but also part of who I am.” I think that makes a difference in how kids respond to adults. I think in the society we live in, it’s so easy to get caught in just a desert. Where no one knows you exist. (pg. 61)
Parallels between SEL and Moral Education
As I’ve worked for the last few years more deeply in social-emotional research and practice, I’ve noted several overlapping connections and parallels between this work and the character and moral education efforts of schools and teachers that emerged in my research of rural high schools. Words and concepts in the character and moral education realm, such as responsibility, honesty, civic obligation, community, and compassion have clear ties to social-emotional competencies. Inter- and intra-personal skills in self-management, social awareness, self-awareness, and self-efficacy can support these types of moral spheres. Even the use of the word “moral” has parallels in that it’s used in this book to describe a child’s fundamental ability to distinguish, and, to some extent, regulate behavior. The moral and character attributes that all schools promote, reinforce, and assess—whether intentional or not—all fall, as with social-emotional learning, under the umbrella of non-academic factors toward student success.
Content of their Character is a reminder that—in all types of schools across the United States— educators acknowledge and are committed to bettering students’ lives not only through academic development, but also through the non-academic factors we rely on to navigate life. And, helping students build these skills can work to strengthen communities. Take, for example, a high school-aged student that decides to voluntarily initiate a fundraiser to support homelessness in his or her community. This student initiative likely entails a level of social awareness, including social perspective taking and cultural competence. Implementing such a fundraiser requires strong executive functioning and self-management skills, as well as the belief that this initiative succeeds (self-efficacy).
In order to ensure that our K-12 education system aids student holistic development, we should not only provide expectations, but support in skill development as well.