Last week I was supposed to speak at Townley Grammar's Character Education Conference - the first of 5 Character Education conferences I am keynoting at or running workshops at this year. I had to pull out of the conference because, well, you know that flu that everyone had over winter and I thought I had somehow dodged it, it got me. Barely able to lift my head off my pillow, I had to cancel my talk, and I was gutted! I had been so looking forward to this conference, not only because of an opportunity to speak about my experience of character, but to also hear other passionate experts talk about their perspective and how they are embedding character into their school communities. Townley Grammar is one of the schools at the leading edge of embedding and developing character in their school community. Fabian de Fabiani is Townley Grammar's Director of Character and Wellbeing, and was the driving force behind the conference, his passion to bring character education into schools is palpable and exciting. It is conferences like this one that is opening up the discussion on character and the application of character interventions - discussions that are needed as the importance of catching and teaching life skills and wellbeing in schools in growing.
As I missed out on attending this amazing conference, I wanted to take the time to write a little bit about what I had intended to speak about; I had been asked to speak about my story and how character fits into the wider picture. This got me thinking about how we use story to inspire, develop, and grow, and how we can use our own stories to develop character within and wider into the community. So, here we go....
As I have delved deeper into the theory and concept of character and virtues I have started to see something really important about my life, and other peoples lives as well. Our lives are made up of stories; our histories are there, rich in different experiences, and most importantly, rich in expression of character and virtue. As I mine my own life, to illustrate what certain character traits can look like, I have realised that there is power in this mining, power to strengthen my own sense of character, and if my own stories strengthen my own sense of character and purpose, will your stories strengthen yours?
There is definitely something in this idea or application of character - in Ryan Niemiec's book, Character Strengths Interventions, he talks about a character strengths activity you can do where you draw upon previous experiences of character expression, and you make it known, not only to yourself, but others, through story (see end of blog post for instructions for activity). In doing this you are raising awareness of your own character strengths to the wider world, revealing the moments where you have been kind, brave, or humble, and owning those moments as a deep part of your personal history. This shifts a focus away from negative, critical thought, and you start to see the positive aspects of your personality and experiences, you start to see the wider impact and importance of your life rippling out into the community around you. You start to shift your language, from one of deficit and defeat, to one of growth and gain.
Story: I was painfully shy as a child, I hated being the centre of attention (outside of my family that is - inside the family I could shout and talk and perform for days!) and was socially awkward, so much so that, even when I put myself forward for school vice captain (which I somehow got), I would only go on the camp for school leaders if my best friend could come along. I know some of you are scratching your heads - she was shy, but pursued leadership goals, I'm a conundrum even unto myself. This strange dichotomy of wanting to hide from others, and yet pursue goals that thrust me into the public eye, is something I have struggled with on many levels, and one of these levels was in sport. As an eleven year old I loved swimming and racing (in my backyard pool) and I desperately wanted to compete at the school swimming carnival (or swimming gala as you Brits like to call it), but the thought of making a fool out of myself held me back. It took my mum saying she would be there at the swimming carnival, and that she would walk beside the pool with me and pull me out if anything went wrong, to make me feel brave enough to leap in that water. The race was the 50m Breaststroke, and there was only me and another girl in the race. I was convinced I would lose, and when the teacher announced that they would race the boys 50m Breaststroke at the same time, I flipped and refused to line up. It took my mum and a teacher to convince me that racing the boys was a non sequitur to actually pulling out of the competition. So I got in the water, heart racing, face flushed from embarrassment, and got set. The gun went. All I remember is the end of the pool seemed to far away, and every time my head bobbed out of the water I could hear my mum yelling at me to "Go Go Go." I had no idea where anyone else was, and as the end wall approached, I argued with myself over stopping or continuing. I kept on going, finished the race, and promptly found out that I had come first in the girls, and if I had been racing the boys, out of 6 boys I would've come 3rd. The smile on my face said it all, the blue winners ribbon clutched tight in my hand, and the pride I felt in my chest was bursting through my skin. Brave, resilient, a little gritty, a lot of courage, a lot of self belief, was expressed and developed in that moment; if I could do that, gulp down my fears and spread my wings a little in the school swimming carnival, what could I do in the future, on a wider, world stage? Suddenly a feeling of potential flooded my senses.
Fear develops in a child's scope of life experience at a young age. As soon as we are born we have biases and stereotype conditioning thrust upon us, developing a mindset that is aimed to protect us and keep us safe, but ultimately ties us to a world of disbelief in our own potential. We need to change this, on many levels, and as a school community we can shift this thinking in the children that we work with by changing the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. As a child and teen I believed in what my life would not be like, and it took a lot of mindset shift and support from parents and teachers who did believe in me to recognise and value the potential that my life did inherently hold. In plying my life for nuggets of this potential, I have started to see that as a child I was living and developing character strengths that would ripple into my adult years, and see me through some of the toughest and heartbreaking moments of life (relationship breakdown, home-sickness, and gut-wrenching grief - things we all of us experience and have to process and grow from). Those moments where we can recognise we have been brave, resilient, and courageous, shows us that we are capable of these moments, and in knowing we are capable, we can draw on them and use them when deciding a course of action and interaction. The story above shows that if we can reframe how a child approaches a moment in life that they believe may be difficult, embarrassing, and to hard to try, we can shift their focus from one of fear, to one where they are the hero in their own story, where they can consciously tap into their character strengths to give them the physical and mental strengths to pick themselves up and have a go.
In reframing your stories you can start to see your moments of character, when and how you applied those actions of character-ful acts, and start to think of how you can apply these into the future. The "Develop Strengths-Spotting" activity can help you and your pupils/students start to mine their own life stories for examples of when they have shown and taken action with a character strength, this will start to change their language around who they are as people, how they view themselves and others, and also develop a self belief in their abilities to be character-ful people that will benefit, not only themselves, but the wider community.
Step 1: Think of a time in your life when you have shown a particular character strength. This could be from anytime in your life, any situation/context, i.e., home, school, work, hobbies.
Step 2: Develop/write this time out as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Step 3: Review the story and note the character strengths that you have used in that moment.
Step 4: Share this story with a peer, friend, or family member.
Step 5: Ask this person to provide feedback, what character strengths did they pick up on.
Step 6: Now listen to a character strengths story from them and offer them feedback.
Research shows that when you share positive stories with others you increase the feelings of positive emotions, and you also increase levels of happiness and life satisfaction - all of which increase our ability to be resilient in the face of tough times.