Teaching Character and Curriculum

“You can’t do it.”

I frequently heard that phrase when I chose to become a teacher. Not only because I was exceedingly shy, but also because I wanted to do more than teach English; I wanted to teach students how to have good lives. I wanted to teach how to persevere and overcome obstacles. People flat-out informed me that that was impossible in this age of teaching to the test.

Stubbornly, I continued on – despite the nagging suspicion that they were right.

Then I stumbled into Tae Kwon Do. There, I saw instructors teaching students a curriculum while also building up their students. I saw the positive environment that the martial arts school had built up, and how it helped students overcome their doubts. I watched the instructors push the students to be better.

I was hooked.  

I came in early just to watch classes so that I could observe the way instructors handled situations. In classes, I paid as much attention to the instructors’ attitudes as I did to my kicks. I wanted to teach like them.

And then, when I got higher up in training, I sweet-talked the instructors into letting me assist. What I learned is that these moments to teach perseverance are not found in great lectures or lessons, but in the small moments.  

In a white belt class, we were working on a three-step combo. Straight punch, reverse punch, then front kick. The boy I was helping stared at me, wide-eyed. “This is confusing!!”  

I nodded, smiling. “Yes, it is. But you will get to a point where it won’t be anymore. You’ll get to the point where it seems easy! But first, you have to go through the time when it’s confusing.”

The boy nodded, looking thoughtful. He stopped complaining about the confusion.

Another student yelped when I went to help her stretch harder to extend her flexibility. She is still new, so I didn’t push hard – but it was still enough to get a reaction. “That hurts!”

I nodded. “I know. That’s actually good. It’s through going into a little bit of the pain that we become more flexible.”

“But I’m not flexible!”

“Not yet, but you’ll get there. This is how you become more flexible.”

I’ve learned that most students respond well once you explain how you are helping them. (Not always the first time, though. Sometimes, the mind-sets take awhile to shift.) Nudging them out of their comfort zone, while explaining WHY you are doing so, helps them realize they can do more than they believed.  

This also holds true with other character development issues. For example, the most useful time to talk about courtesy is when a student does something discourteous. I’ve found that the best way to approach that is not through a lecturing mode, but rather by asking questions, such as “How would you feel if they did that to you? Would you like it if someone did that again, just after you told them that it hurt?” Another tactic I use is to show them how their actions impact others.  

It does take a little bit of time, in the beginning. However, the long-term results are well worth it.  

I absolutely believe that this attitude and approach can be transferred into the academic classroom. For example, I’ve trained myself through assisting in TKD classes to respond to the complaint “This is hard!” with a “Yes, it is – but you’re good enough to do it. Try again.” (And, if needed, add in a “Here, focus on this … ” and show them a specific element to work on.)

Back to when I began on the path towards teaching, I suspect that most people thought that I would want to build students up at the expense of the curriculum. Not only is that not the case, but I vehemently consider it counterproductive. If I do not hold the students to high standards, then the underlying message I am sending is that they are incapable of doing well. This would teach the students the opposite of the message I wish for them to understand! To build them up, I must make my high standards clear… and then help them achieve the higher bar.  

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