Character Education: It’s Not Something Added to The Plate. It Is the Plate

It was my first year teaching, and I was tidying up my classroom. I picked up trash under a desk and threw it away. The next day I noticed more trash under a desk. I watched for several days as the culprit would place trash under his desk and then leave it.  The next day, when my classroom offender got up to leave, once again leaving trash on the floor, I stopped him and asked him why he would leave his trash, he stated, “Oh, that’s the janitor’s job.”

What? I was furious,but quickly realized that the student was saying this with no malice or entitlement. He truly thought that since there was a janitor who already cleaned up, a little trash in a pile was just part of the job.

It was on this day that I realized, I was teaching kids more than just English.

Academic Versus Non-Academic Skills

“Take your ear buds out during a conversation.” “Stand up when meeting someone for the first time and shake hands.” “When working in a group and you finish your task, ask others if you can help them.”

These are “common sense” courtesies that we expect students to perform, but who is teaching these “soft skills”—social-emotional learning and personality traits—to our kids? In a 2015 Kansas State Department of Education analysis of community and business focus group responses centered around the question, “According to Kansans, what skills should the ideally educated, 24-year-old youth have?” 70 percent of community focus group participants and 81 percent of business and industry participants cited non-academic skills over academic skills when describing the ideally educated youth.

This led educators to the questions of when, where, and how these skills were being taught to students.

Redefining Character Education

Often, when students and staff members hear “character education,” once-a-month lessons which begin with definitions of vocabulary words such as “responsibility,” “respect,” “friendship,” and “perseverance” followed by class discussion around the question “What does (insert character trait) mean to me?” come to mind.

At Complete High School Maize, we have stopped making character education an addition to the curriculum and have made character education the curriculum that everything else sits upon. Instead of contrived, one-and-done lessons, students are taught character education concepts through authentic, hands-on projects and lessons. With a character trait focus identified each month, all students and staff members participate in one hour of character education each day.

From learning responsibility by writing a resume and cover letter, learning civic engagement by registering to vote, to learning compassion by discussing funeral etiquette, character education at CHSM is something that students live, not just learn.

Turn-Key Resource for Free

Interest in CHSM’s all-inclusive character program, boosted by the school’s designation as a National School of Character by, motivated staff members to compile a year’s worth of character education lessons into the free resource titled 186 Days of Character. The downloadable manual is available via PDF or Google Drive. Lessons are organized by monthly character trait and list the character trait focus of the lesson, Social Emotional Character Development (SECD) standards met, and life skills addressed.

CHSM staff members are committed to helping other schools get started making character education more than just something added to the plate, and instead making character education the plate that everything else rests upon.

How can you, as leaders, support character education in your school and district?

Kristy Custer is the principal of Complete High School Maize, an experiential, project-based, alternative school in Maize, KS. CHSM has won numerous awards including National School of Character, Kansas Green School of the Year, and the National Dropout Prevention Center’s Crystal Star Award. She has been at CHSM a total of 18 years, seven as the principal. She is the 2018 Kansas Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @CompleteHSM.


  • Lilibeth Ramos says:

    Thank you so much for this very timely and important reminder to school leaders.

  • Martha Lingo says:

    How could anyone object to this thinking? I think it is valuable dir all children.

    • Anonymous says:

      As educators, I think we sometimes just simply run out of time. It’s so important to prioritize character education and help others understand that spending time on these important life skills will make educating students EASIER in the long run.

  • Mark Farrar says:

    Excellent program and something that all schools should push. Great job!

    • Kristy Custer says:

      Thank you, Mark. Making Character Education the focal point of our academics has definitely increased the positive culture in our building. Interestingly, teachers have found that taking time out to teach Character Education has actually freed up more classroom time that is not spent on discipline issues. I hope the rest of your school year is rewarding!

  • Jamey Hood says:

    Well done Kristy! You are doing an awesome job and your staff and kids must love you! It was great connecting with you in DC. Hope we can meet again.

    • Kristy Custer says:

      Hi, Jamey! Thank you for taking time to respond! I definitely enjoyed our time in DC and learned so much from our sessions and our colleagues. I hope things are going well in Garrett and Nevada. I look forward to when we can reconnect!

  • Kristy Custer says:

    Hi, Jamey! Thank you for taking time to respond! I definitely enjoyed our time in DC and learned so much from our sessions and our colleagues. I hope things are going well in Garrett and Nevada. I look forward to when we can reconnect!

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