My regrettable “mean girl” moment happened when I was in seventh grade.
I was living in a new town and struggling to fit in. As Halloween approached, I felt hopeful when a shy yet kind girl asked me if I would trick-or-treat with her. I jumped at the invitation, until another more “popular” girl invited me to walk around with her group. I made the selfish and unkind decision to tell the first girl that my parents said I needed to stay home and pass out candy.
I remember that gnawing feeling of shame that began to form in my gut as I delivered this dishonest excuse. That little voice of conscience was quickly stifled by an internal dialogue of justification and a false sense of security as I began to prepare my costume and plans for the evening.
While we were trick-or-treating, the “cool” girls were less than kind to me, but I convinced myself I had made the right decision. Then, I experienced a moment of pure embarrassment and shame when I found myself face to face with the sweet girl I had lied to. I’ll always remember the look of hurt and disgust on her face when she saw me with another group of girls.
I never took direct responsibility for my dishonest behavior. In the years that followed, we didn’t interact at school. We just ignored each other and every time I saw her, I heard a little voice that reminded me what an awful person I was. I also was never welcomed into the group of girls that I so desperately wanted to accept me. In fact, I became their target for aggressive behavior for the next few years.
Later, in my late 30s, I formed an interest in character education when I found myself at a personal and professional crossroads. With the guidance of a mentor, I began to consider the trajectory of my own character development and how relationships with family, friends, and educators, as well as experiences, such as my Halloween debacle, had affected my values, beliefs, and decisions. This exploration uncovered a new sense of purpose that eventually led me to the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University (ASU).
We began asking big questions around the type of impact we might have on educators, learners, families, and society if we were to integrate a focus on character development and decision making in the systems of teacher and leader preparation. Could cultivating a capacity for these dispositions in educators contribute to individual, systemic, and societal flourishing?
I now realize that it could have made a difference for me. Looking back on that Halloween through the lens of my research and experience, I would like to tell my 12-year-old self that the decisions I make can have long-term effects on others. I’d share that I’ve learned that character assets such as honesty and integrity are more desirable qualities than prestige and power, and that the way I show up for other people is more important than what others can do for me.
These choices might have led to stronger connections and authentic friendships instead of hurt feelings, negative self-perception, and relational aggression. While I cannot change the past, I can learn about character traits such as honesty, compassion, humility, and integrity through reflection on my experiences, engaging with others who demonstrate these traits, and being intentional about how I nurture these qualities in myself to ensure that I respond differently when faced with future decisions and actions.
My colleagues and I have come to believe that character is something that can be developed in future educators and in educational contexts. We needed to begin with collaboratively creating a shared language and understanding of character and character development, and looking at how it relates to decision making and systems change in education. We landed at a framework that we call Principled Innovation.
How character forms
Character development is complex. It’s an evolutionary journey of becoming that begins in our youngest years and evolves as we cultivate our values and beliefs through relationships, lived experiences, and our engagement in various systems. The places where we exist and the people who exist alongside us throughout our lives impact who we are and what we become.
Our character will form without a map or a guidebook, and typically without our knowledge until we are faced with a situation, dilemma, or adversity that requires our intentional deliberation of thought and action. These experiences can be a catalyst to positive growth, and if approached with a sense of practical wisdom, might also result in purposeful action that leads to both individual and collective flourishing.
Character development is fluid and it continues throughout a person’s lifetime. Individuals have the capacity to learn, regress, change, and develop new aspects of their character, even into adulthood, as they engage in experiences, relationships, contexts, and exemplars. When approached with intention, we can become self-aware enough to guide our development of character through reflective practices, or affect the development of others through intentional strategies designed to cultivate virtue.
The Principled Innovation framework defines character for our context as a large public college of education. It recognizes the links between our own individual character and the impact we might have on individuals, organizations, and systems. The framework and the accompanying tools and resources provide concrete guidance and practices designed to both develop and demonstrate character through the process of innovation.
The Principled Innovation approach, language, and resources have been integrated into culture, curriculum, and practice at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. We started with faculty and staff development, as we found it to be imperative to focus on our own understanding and practice of Principled Innovation if we were to model and teach it through pedagogy and curriculum.
Three paths to character
In the six years we have been engaging in this work with Principled Innovation, we have found three big takeaways that help us to be intentional about how we are both developing and demonstrating character for our future educators.
1. Character is personal. Individual character development will happen whether or not we are intentional about how it occurs. As humans develop, their cognitive and emotional capacities expand. They develop reasoning skills, problem-solving abilities, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. These developments play a significant role in shaping character and influencing moral reasoning, decision making, and how individuals perceive and interact with the world.
Personal experiences, including successes, failures, challenges, and significant life events, contribute to character development. These experiences provide opportunities for individuals to develop character assets such as honesty, humility, civility, and resilience.
The key to intentionality is cultivating a willingness to grow and develop as a human, which includes being honest with ourselves and engaging the humility to be open-minded to new perspectives. This takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness that can occur through reflection on our own decisions and actions and the results of both. Engaging in self-reflection and introspection allows us to evaluate our thoughts, actions, values, and beliefs. By examining individual beliefs and behaviors, we can consciously work on personal growth, self-improvement, and the development of our character.
Clearly acknowledging and understanding your core values is one place to begin the process. Habituating reflective practices such as meditation, journaling, and reflective questioning can help you become more self-aware and intentional about cultivating the character assets and dispositions that align with and demonstrate your core values.
One example of how we’ve supported our faculty and staff to cultivate these practices is through our Building a Foundation for Principled Innovation course, which is designed to explore moral, civic, intellectual, and performance character assets and to engage in reflective practices to apply these character assets in the context of decision making.
Faculty and staff have engaged with the content both individually and collectively in communities of practice. We have also developed a card deck of generative and reflective questions that are designed to engage these character assets as we make decisions in various contexts. Every staff and faculty member have received these cards with ideas on how to use them as a reflection tool, both individually and collectively.
2. Character is contextual. Environmental factors, including family, culture, and socioeconomic background, significantly shape character development. Early experiences, such as attachment to caregivers, parenting styles, and exposure to different social and cultural norms, can have long-lasting effects on both personality and character.
The contextual influence on character does not end with childhood. Our experiences in the environments in which we live and work throughout our lives will have an impact on our character development and the types of decisions we make in various contexts. While you might be more transparent or honest in a situation that involves secure relationships with family and friends, other virtues such as discernment might outweigh honesty in a situation in a professional setting where you feel less secure or unsupported by the conditions created by leadership and colleagues within an organization.
With this in mind, we carefully examined the culture of our college and identified guiding principles that we were striving toward as an organization. We embraced Principled Innovation as a core value that symbolized an organizational commitment to the development of character. Using Principled Innovation as our approach to systems change has helped us to shape the types of conditions and experiences we provide for our faculty, staff, and students that nurture individual and organizational character.
That’s illustrated through changes to structures and systems within the organization, such as a move toward collaborative and team-based teaching, engagement in communities of practice, demonstrations of Principled Innovation by leadership through communications and actions, and changes to policies and practices that support the development of character.
Through those innovations, we’ve created conditions within our context that allow space for the vulnerability and psychological safety that is necessary for individuals to take risks, fail forward, and lean into the experiences and practices that contribute to the cultivation of practical wisdom and continued growth.
3. Character is relational. Interactions with family members, peers, and broader social networks strongly influence character development. Through social interactions, individuals learn social norms, develop empathy and communication skills, and acquire values and beliefs. Positive and supportive relationships can foster healthy character development, while unhealthy relationships may hinder it. It’s essential to have exemplars in our lives who model the individual practices that contribute to the development of character and who also demonstrate the type of honesty and humility that authentic self-reflection requires.
At a college of education, where we’re striving to prepare educators and leaders who engage character in their decision making, we also need to ensure we are creating the conditions that nurture the authentic relationships that support intentional character development. Creating spaces where we feel we have the permission to be human and bring our whole selves into our environments supports the development of character relationships.
We’ve found that marrying the practices of Principled Innovation with the structure of a community of practice provides the kinds of spaces where intentional connections through a shared purpose can support the development of authentic relationships. We’ve also found small and intentional changes—such as creating space at the beginning of meetings for people to share what’s on their hearts and minds, incorporating Principled Innovation reflective questions into coaching and performance development, and planning activities during the work day where faculty and staff can gather, be creative, and have fun—has helped us to build connection and compassion in an environment where we have often felt humanity and personal lives needed to be left at institution’s door.
Like character development itself, our efforts at ASU are a continual process of becoming. We are still in the nascent stages of learning how our focus on character development in teacher and leader preparation will impact long-term outcomes for individuals, organizations, and systems in education.
Our early observations have been positive to the extent that ASU leadership has identified Practice Principled Innovation as a design aspiration that prompts our entire university community to place character and values at the center of decisions and actions. I have hope for the future of humanity when considering the impact this commitment from a university of ASU’s size and scale could have on the way we innovate and advance emerging technologies, as well as the political and societal climate of our country, and how we communicate and interact as a pluralistic and global community.
It’s idealistic to believe that all individuals will embrace the practice of Principled Innovation and apply it to their decision making, but it’s a lovely thought to consider how doing so in our educational contexts might lead to equitable systems, individual and collective well-being, and positive change for humanity. At the very least, it might encourage the next generation to pause when making even the smallest decisions and consider how that action might affect the well-being of others.