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Educating the Whole Child

February 3, 2016

Here in the Cook Islands, the new school year has just begun and this is what I wrote to teachers as a spiritual kick start to the new year for a joyful and meaningful school year.  Do you remember your favorite teacher? I certainly do. Mine was a short Italian lady who wore long dresses, thick-soled shoes and had a little moustache. And I adored her. At that point, I was a discouraged, probably depressed child who didn't do well in school, believing the shaming names I was called, like "dummy" and "stupid". So I day-dreamed a lot and didn't bother in school, which my poor grades reflected. Mrs. Palmisano looked into my eyes one day early in 8th grade, and said, "I expect excellence from you in my class, Linda. I see how intelligent you are." I was shocked, but a little flame of hope lit within me. Her faith in me literally woke me up to a world of learning. I began paying attention, and it paid off in excellent grades and new confidence, which continued through university and graduate school.  The influence of a caring, challenging, enthusiastic teacher is a priceless gift. That's why I deeply admire teachers, especially those who see their work not only as a job, but a calling.

Children rise or fall to whatever we expect of them. The word "educate" means to bring forth. The role of a good teacher is to bring forth the best in every child and to hold them to high expectations, to have faith in them, to inspire them. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, "Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." So, teaching isn't only about learning reading, maths and science, it is learning to be a good person, of integrity, honesty, kindness, determination and strength. Educating the whole child is seeing them not only from an academic standpoint but as mental, emotional, spiritual, physical beings who are deeply sensitive to how we see them, speak to them, listen to them and touch them, especially when we touch their souls. Speaking the Language of Virtues and using a restorative justice approach to setting clear boundaries sustains a peaceful and joyful school climate at every level.

Dr. Magdalene Carney, an award winning educator, told me this story of her early years as a teacher in a poor section of Detroit, Michigan. She came in as a relief teacher mid-year after a teacher quit. All the principal told her about her class was, "They're the special kids." She walked into bedlam, spitballs flying through the air, kids' feet on the desks, the noise deafening. She opened the attendance book and saw the numbers beside their names, 140 to 160. "Oh," she thought to herself, "No wonder they're so high spirited. They have exceptional IQs." She smiled and brought them to order. At first, they failed to turn in homework, and class work was sloppy. Rarely would they speak when asked a question. Mag began to speak to them about their natural excellence, their giftedness, and that she expected only the best work from them. She kept reminding them to use all the extra intelligence God had given them. Things began to change. The children worked diligently. Their work was original, creative and neat. One day the principal walked by and saw students in rapt attention, composing essays. He called Mag to his office. "What have you done to these students? Their test results have surpassed all the regular grades." "Well, what did you expect? They're gifted, aren't they?" "Gifted?! They're the special needs students with behavior disorders and retardation." "Then why are their IQs so high in the attendance book?" she asked.  He said, "Those aren't their IQs. Those are their locker numbers!" "Whatever," Mag said.

An inspiring teacher uses several keys to success: 

  1. He has respect and love for every child, even the ones that act up.
  2. She never uses negative labels like "naughty" or "lazy". She calls children to their virtues such as "peacefulness", "respect", and "excellence", and acknowledges improvement.
  3. He is kind and also assertive. Clear class boundaries or a "class promise" is formed early in the year and serves as a standard for behavior. At Araura College (High School) on Aitutaki, each class has created a symbol and a legend of their guiding virtue. For example, one class used a picture of Bob the Virtues Builder. Legend: "Our class wears the hat of leadership and courage to lead forward with strength and good character to the end. The tool belt indicates that we stand united, driving forward with determination for the greater good."
  4. A teacher is well-prepared, uses humor (especially in these islands!), speaks with enthusiasm and finds creative ways to engage students and inspire them to learn.

Wishing all teachers and students a happy and successful school year! For more on the Five Strategies in character education, see The Virtues Project Educator's Guide on


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Linda Kavelin-Popov

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