As a young boy, Mr Sulaiman Bin Mohamad Yusof faced emotional challenges and struggled academically. Today, he is Principal of Naval Base Secondary School. Sulaiman attributes his success to one important factor – having the right attitude. He thus understands the importance of having a strong character education programme in school and how it impacts citizenship education and ultimately, individual success.
Why do you think character education is important?
My belief in the importance of character education stems from personal experience and observations of students and fellow educators who have become successful individuals.
During my growing up years, I faced many difficulties at home and school – I lost my father when I was 10 and struggled academically in secondary school. Nevertheless, I was able to overcome these challenges and get to where I am today not only because of the guidance my teachers provided, but also because of my character traits that brought out the best in me.
Beyond personal experience however, I have also observed that character attributes play a greater role than inborn talents and socioeconomic background in enabling many of my past and present students, and colleagues to overcome challenges and achieve success. So it is really about having the right attitude for success.
“Students need to have a good balance between performance and moral character to become leaders of character.”
– Sulaiman Bin Mohamed Yusof, Principal of Naval Base Secondary School
How does Naval Base Secondary School promote character education?
At Naval Base Secondary School, we believe that a strong character education programme facilitates the holistic development of students by imparting the values and attitude that would enable them to achieve success and impact others positively. This belief is encapsulated in our vision “Leaders of Character, School of Excellence” and we enact this by making character education the heartbeat of school leaders, teachers and programmes we offer.
There are two components embedded in “Leaders of Character” – performance character (e.g., diligence, grit, resilience) and moral character (e.g., integrity, respect, generosity). These are adapted from Thomas Lickona’s and Matthew Davidson’s (2005) Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond. Students need to have a good balance between performance and moral character to become leaders of character.
Our Learning for Life Programme, which promotes character education through sports, centers on the belief that success is about doing our best and having peace of mind rather than being better than others. Physical Education teachers and teachers in charge of sports Co-Curricular Activities emphasize the importance of sportsmanship and giving our best, which relates to the balance between performance and moral character. For instance, a sportsman who wins a competition by cheating may have performance character but not moral character. In contrast, a capable sportsman who does not win a competition but plays fairly and gives his best exemplifies the balance between performance and moral character.
What is the role of teachers and school leaders in Naval Base Secondary School in fostering character development?
Teachers are the key drivers of character education in the school and efforts to develop the character of students begin with strong teacher-student relationships. They achieve this by treating students with respect in the same way that they would also want students to respect them. When teachers set good examples, students are better able to connect with them and this connection enables both parties to work in tandem to bring out the best in students.
My colleagues and I also believe in disciplining with dignity when we take action against transgressions that students commit. This means that we try to understand the thoughts, feelings and actions of our students but also communicate the consequences of the offence so that they do not make the same mistakes again. This balance between showing empathy and being firm has enabled us to maintain good discipline in the school.
Another aspect of character development the school focuses on is helping students identify and build on their strengths. Before meeting students with disciplinary issues, I will speak to their teachers to find out what their strengths are and when I subsequently speak to them, the first question I will ask is: What are your strengths? I had a student who told me he had no strengths and when I listed his strengths, he broke down – that moment marked the start of his turnaround in character.
“Teachers are the key drivers of character education in the school and efforts to
develop the character of students begin with strong teacher-student relationships.”
– Sulaiman on the role of teachers in shaping students’ character
What is the relationship between character education and citizenship education?
Character education and citizenship education overlap in many areas and it remains an open question as to whether character education is part of citizenship education or vice versa.
Both character education and citizenship education focus on imparting the right values and attitudes in the individual, family and community. They also share the approach of helping an individual to develop an attribute such as resilience and subsequently extending these efforts to the family and community. When we get to the community level, we are effectively embarking on citizenship education.
Students, however, have to be anchored in good character in order to appreciate the lessons of citizenship education. Otherwise, they can be misguided by the developments and events that citizenship education covers such as the threat of terrorism and racial conflicts in the world. For instance, a lesson on the 1964 race riots in Singapore may negatively excite students instead of convey the importance of safeguarding racial harmony because their values have not been grounded in the right direction from the outset. Values inculcation is thus also a key component of citizenship education.
Ultimately, character education and citizenship education are equally important but the success of citizenship education very much depends on whether students are rooted in good character.
What advice do you have for fellow educators who wish to incorporate character and citizenship education (CCE) into the classroom?
Set aside time to understand the purpose of CCE and its importance for students. This would give you conviction and clarity about CCE, which is key to conducting an effective lesson for students.
To make CCE lessons relevant and impactful for students, tell stories. In fact, students tend to find CCE lessons engaging and meaningful when teachers share personal stories and experiences because they make the lesson more relatable to students. Apart from personal stories and experiences, you can also share the experiences of your colleagues and friends or use fictional stories to convey the importance of specific values.
Lastly, never teach with the sole aim of getting students to score well in examinations. In Social Studies, for instance, focus on making the learning experience enjoyable and developing students’ passion for the subject by making it relevant and alive. Some ways to accomplish this include incorporating ICT-based games or group-based activities into lessons. We should also ask thought-provoking questions to challenge and encourage students to think deeply and inspire curiosity in them. If we can make students excited and curious about the subject’s content, we would have succeeded in nurturing their passion for the subject.
Lickona, T., & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and good high schools: Integrating excellence and ethics for success in school, work and beyond. Retrieved from https://www2.cortland.edu/centers/character/high-schools/SnGReport.pdf