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Teaching and assessing character: Part 2

favicon Since finishing up Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (now #6 on The New York Times list of hardcover nonfiction best sellers) I’ve thought a lot about how to incorporate character skills into my classroom the next time I teach.

In my last post about character, I narrowed down a list of 24 character to a more manageable list of five: zest, grit, discipline, empathy, and integrity.

It’s a working list that might change. For example, I think I prefer “self-control” over “discipline.” And a few readers suggested “self-awareness” as a critical character skill to include. (Thank you, readers!)

Given that the final list may evolve — and perhaps I will involve my students in the process — the next step is to define the skills. That way, students can demonstrate them, and I can teach them.

Here is what I have so far. These are just from my head. Later I’ll consult other resources. Please feel free to challenge and improve:

1. Zest
Being joyful and positive and open to life and learning
Being present and participating fully

2. Grit
Working hard and conscientiously on an important long-term goal
Bouncing back from and persevering through challenges and failure

3. Self-control
Maintaining focus amid distractions
Controlling impulses and emotions, staying calm when irritated

4. Empathy
Respecting the dignity and feelings of others
Understanding how your actions affect others

5. Integrity
Doing the right thing even when it’s challenging
Being honest in your words and actions

So what do you think so far? Am I missing something huge? Or are there too many? Should I change my list or modify my descriptors? I’m interested in what you have to say!

Coming up: A little bit more about why. favicon


  1. Lois

    Interesting. JOYFUL stood out. Tough to teach. Lots of students ( even family members or friends) aren’t joyful. It’s more like a personality trait, or just the way the express themselves. They can still be of great character and learners.

    • Mark Isero

      Great point, Lois. There is a lot of controversy and debate about how much these character skills can be taught — whether they’re closer to personality traits.

      (I know that I have trouble demonstrating some of them!)

      I am hopeful, though, that through practice, modeling, and explicit instruction, students see that these skills are important and work toward improving them. They may never find total and complete joy in the classroom, but maybe they can move in that direction!

      Thank you always for being a loyal Iserotope reader!

  2. Dave

    I love this line of thinking. Whenever I think about quantifying critical elements of measuring the development of the whole student I get excited and this is a part of student development that rarely gets attention. When thinking about applying some of these ideas I am struggling with integrating the assessment into the traditional grading system. Already a student grade in my academic classes represents their growth in writing, verbal communication, citizenship, content knowledge, and study skills. I worry that the significance of each area of assessment is diminished by adding even more. Are you thinking of this type of instruction and assessment just for advisory/homeroom classrooms?

    • Mark Isero

      Dave, you bring up a good point. Even if we know how to assess character, that doesn’t mean there is sufficient space in our grading system. On the other hand, if we value it, we must find room. I plan on writing a post about this soon, but in the meantime, I wonder: Is your citizenship category a place for character? Also, the “study skills” category seems promising. What do you think?

    • Dave

      Thanks for the comment. It is good to be reminded that there is always a way to teach the things that really matter. I’m looking forward to other “Teaching Character” posts.

  3. Meg Griswold

    I heard Jeffrey Willhelm (You Gotta BE the Book, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys) describe what school should be as “hard fun.” I think that would fall under “zest” perhaps.

    I like what you’ve done–I support the switch from discipline to self-control.

    • Mark Isero

      Thank you, Meg! “Hard fun” can also go under “grit.” Too often, my students give up too easily or want too much affirmation to persist with a difficult task.

      I like “self-control,” too. It combines being focused with monitoring impulsive reactions (like blurting out a question while the teacher is giving out instructions!).

Please share your brilliant insights!