Student Development

Pillars of character

It has been said that character can be measured by what one would do if no one were looking. True character is instilled at a deep level so that positive behaviour is automatic. The Josephson Institute of Ethics defines the main pillars of character to include: trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, caring, fairness and citizenship. Courage, diligence, and integrity are also sometimes included. One way to address these pillars is to choose one per month and find ways to highlight it. Create an interactive collage on a bulletin board in the classroom. Assign creative writing projects on the topic, encouraging students to explore it. How would they define trustworthiness, respect, or integrity? Focusing on one pillar per month is a great way to raise awareness of the character traits they can strive to build in themselves. Students could also read a book that you feel embodies the trait, or come up with their own personal slogan about it.

Your rules set the tone

It is your responsibility as the teacher to set appropriate rules for classroom behaviour. Be clear about the ground rules. Specify what you expect to see from your students, and what is unacceptable. Discuss the rules with the students, as well as the character traits that are embodied and built by each rule. Be sure to be a good example yourself as well. Complete your own work on time, be neat and punctual, and always show respect for others.

Encourage good role models

Students choose role models whether a teacher or adult helps or not. Make an effort to point out positive character role models in history, literature, science and the arts. Deliberately teach about people that your students can emulate. Ask students to describe, assess and match the traits and behaviours of these people or commendable characters within a fiction story. They could even dramatize some of the story elements or change them to allow a character to make better choices. Talk about the behaviour of current world leaders, sports figures and celebrities as well. Ask students if a person’s words match their actions. Discuss how life is improved with good character traits.

Insist on respect

Your classroom should be firmly established on a foundation of respect. Self-respect and respect for others are the basis of all other positive character traits. Negativity and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and met with appropriate consequences. Create anti-bullying campaigns and extol the virtues of treating all classmates with respect and dignity.

Build a caring community

A caring attitude can be encouraged by having a zero-tolerance policy on name-calling and character assaults or bullying. Make sure that all students are included in activities. Describe the “random acts of kindness” concept and reward students when they demonstrate it.


Take some time in your classroom to highlight the virtues and importance of volunteerism. Start volunteer programs in your classroom and school. Allow students to read or tutor younger children, assist in the computer lab, help at a local food bank, assist with reading comprehension or provide support for students recovering from an illness or injury.

Character in action

Throughout the school year, challenge students to create class projects that can benefit the school or community. Brainstorm ideas that cultivate the Pillars of Character discussed in Tip No. 1 and strive for a strong community spirit. Have older students manage these projects. Work with students to plan the steps necessary. Enlist parental and community support; ask for sponsors or donations as needed.

These are just a few suggestions for building character in schools and students. However, there are actually endless opportunities to do so throughout the school day. Use your imagination — the sky is the limit.