There is little debate among observers that a crisis exists in education and in the youth culture at large. It is easy to curse the darkness, but lighting a light is far better. A program designed to address the needs for character development among our youth is the product of a Southern Baptist layman who saw — and took — the opportunity to light a light. Character First! is designed to promote character development in workplace, classroom, and civic settings. Tom Hill, the founder of the Character Training Institute (CTI) and originator of the Character First! training is a member of First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, Oklahoma. Robert Greenlaw is assistant to the director of CTI. He and his sister, Rebekah, are responsible for international training and curriculum development for Character First! Education.
SBC LIFE Robert, what is the ultimate goal of the Character First! program?
RG Simply put, the purpose is to provide materials and training for building character in children, adults, and families. It's our desire to see the culture within a community, a state, and a nation, realigned with the basic moral concepts that are outlined with the forty-nine character qualities addressed in the program. Character First! is provided as a service for teachers, churches, mission agencies, and public agencies. We want to do everything we can to supply their need for character training materials.
The distinctive and the underlying reason why the Character First! program exists is because of the state of our culture. In previous generations, particularly here in America, individuals grew up learning to be honest, to work hard, and to respect authority. Now we live in a culture that doesn't promote these qualities. Too many children are not learning these basic concepts at home. If they don't learn them at home, and if they do not learn them at church, they certainly aren't going to learn them by listening to the radio or watching the television. That's why schools are attempting to pick up the slack in some regard.
Character First! is a systematic approach to developing character. In my family we grew up reading Proverbs and having our devotions every day. That's where we learned right and wrong and how to behave. But to be perfectly honest, had we been able to follow a systematic pattern of learning, like the Character First! program or something similar, it would have accelerated our learning process. That's what we found with Christian homes and Sunday schools — you can learn these things by reading through the Proverbs or following a study guide in your devotions, but having a program that's systematic in learning accelerates the whole process.
SBC LIFE How do you train teachers and parents to teach these principles?
RG We provide training sessions that last from three to six hours, depending on the audience - if we're doing an in-service training for professional teachers, we move a little more quickly than if we have volunteers. The training methodology behind Character First! follows these three components.
The first is emphasizing character. Tom Hill, chief operating officer of Kimray, Inc., an oil and natural gas valve and control manufacturer in Oklahoma City, found in his company that many of his employees hadn't even learned such traits as thoroughness, creativity, and resourcefulness, nor how to apply them to their work life. The same is true of many children. They may have heard of attentiveness, obedience, and truthfulness, but they really don't understand how these qualities apply to their everyday actions.
The curriculum helps define each character trait through five I wills. What is attentiveness? That means I will look at people when they speak to me, I will sit up straight, I will ask questions if I don't understand, I will not draw attention to myself, and I will keep myself from distractions. My mother's favorite one is obedience; that I will obey immediately, cheerfully, completely, without complaining, and even go the extra mile. Emphasizing character explains exactly what these qualities mean, so a parent and child share the same expectations.
The second part of the training deals with requiring character. Character First! is designed to help build character. It starts with character awareness but then you have to follow up by requiring the character trait. This means: 1) the parents or the teachers must be examples of the character trait themselves, and 2) when there are problems with the children you don't merely correct them for what they've done, you also tie it back to the character quality. For example, it's not just that the children didn't bring back their homework, but that they were not responsible to bring back their homework. It's not that they stood up and left the room, but that they disobeyed you and left the room. It's not that they were making jokes at their neighbor, but that that they were being rude.
The second part of the training includes how to correct the heart of a child, not merely the actions. One of the realities that we all can relate to is that if you tried to make a rule for every action, you couldn't make a list long enough to cover all the things to do or not to do. But if you address the principles of character, it simplifies it; it draws everything back to the heart issues.
This is basically the way American education was handled early in our republic. When you look at the early New England primers, everything they did academically — the examples they used, even learning their ABCs — taught them how to treat each other. All the illustrations seemed to be character-related in many ways.
The third part of the training is recognizing character. So often we treat the whole character issue as a list of "dos" and "don'ts." When we make a mistake we're corrected for it. What we emphasize in Character First! is to make corrections when there are problems, but also to remember to praise the children when they do well. The last section of our training deals with how to praise children, not so much for their actions but for their character, not so much for what they do but for who they are that allows them to do what they do. Instead of focusing so much on children making good grades, we teach parents and teachers to focus more on the children's attentiveness in class, their diligence to do all their work, and their responsibility to bring back their homework. Then they see that good grades come as a result. Everyone has the desire for approval. We want to be approved by our leaders, our authorities, and our parents. When children receive that approval, when they're praised for making their beds and keeping their rooms orderly, it motivates them to continue doing that.
SBC LIFE Tell us how the Character First! program originated.
RG Character First! began in 1993 as a character-building program for companies. Tom Hill had tried a number of programs designed to boost productivity in his company, but had little success. Someone suggested that the productivity problems were related to underlying character qualities. So, he pulled a team of his staff together and they started to teach one character quality a month. Within months they started seeing dramatic changes. There was about an 85 percent drop in accidents and workman's compensation claims, and productivity increased, even though the oil industry declined. In addition, the general morale continued to improve month after month as they spoke about character, applied it to the workplace, and praised and rewarded their employees and associates based on their character. From there, Tom Hill established the Character Training Institute. Currently, there are about 500 companies using the Character First! materials, and there is an ongoing department of CTI in Oklahoma City devoted to corporate training.
SBC LIFE How did Character First make its way into the classroom?
RG About four years after Tom Hill started his program, Sgt. Clarence Powers, a community affairs police officer in Oklahoma City, introduced it to the elementary school setting. He had, on his own, tried to do some character training initiatives and training in the local schools, but didn't have any help or any materials. Someone told him, "If you're thinking about character training, you might see if Tom Hill can help." He met with Tom, then he went to the local public school board in Oklahoma City. After seeing the potential, they asked if CTI could take the business training materials and adapt them for their public elementary schools.
SBC LIFE How has Character First! expanded from there?
RG The three main aspects are Character First! Business, Character First! Education, which includes both elementary and secondary (junior high and high school), and Character Cities.
Character Cities is somewhat of a combination of the other two. Plus it includes other aspects of a city such as the faith community, law enforcement, local government, and media: advertising, radio, and billboards.
Approximately 105 cities have passed resolutions in their city council saying, "We in this city are going to do everything we possibly can to promote universally accepted good character qualities in our schools, in our industries, in our media, in our local government, and in our families, which in fact is the center of a community." It's really becoming widespread.
There are about 1,500 public schools in America using the Character First! curriculum representing almost every state - some in very large school districts, some in small ones. Some of the larger ones include Oklahoma City which has about sixty elementary schools using Character First!. Baton Rouge has about sixty schools. There are a number of school districts in the Houston area each with ten to twelve schools. There are about fifty schools in the greater Memphis area, and Cincinnati is beginning the emphasis. Also, Compton, in inner-city Los Angeles, uses Character First!.
We've personally trained over 20,000 teachers and parents, social workers, community mentors (volunteers), and church workers. The news about Character First! for education has really been spread strictly by word of mouth. Someone hears about it and tells someone in their local school district, or their Christian school, or whomever. Then they call us for the training and curriculum.
SBC LIFE Robert, how many pupils would you estimate have been reached through those 20,000 trainees — millions, perhaps?
RG Yes. In Singapore, for example, we trained about 500 teachers and parents in two weeks. As a result of that time, there are approximately sixty public schools in Singapore using the Character First! curriculum, and have been for three years. For perspective's sake, each school there in Singapore often will have about 2,000 pupils. That's more than 100,000 children just from the 500 people we trained. We trained about 10,000 workers in Taiwan. We've been all over the island of Taiwan, both in schools and churches.
SBC LIFE In addition to the U.S., how many nations are involved?
RG There are about thirteen foreign countries. I mentioned Taiwan and Singapore; we've also been to the Philippians and Indonesia. We've trained about 1,500 in Indonesia and it has been translated into Indonesian as well as Chinese. Mongolia is also getting started, where they've translated the first part of the curriculum. There are a number of schools in New Zealand and Australia as well.
SBC LIFE That's interesting, considering the low spiritual ebb in Australia particularly.
RG Yes, and especially down in the Melbourne area where most of our training is taking place. They're excited about what's happening. In Central America there's Guatemala and Honduras and, just to the north, Mexico. Of course we have a number of schools in Canada. In Europe there's Romania and Russia, both with a large number of schools using it.
SBC LIFE What kind of opposition have you encountered from those who might claim this violates the separation of church and state? Has anybody successfully attacked the program as being too religious?
RG I wondered when we first got involved four years ago if we might have trouble. But the short answer is, "no." There has been extremely little opposition to it. The reason goes back to what the program is about. The Character First! program covers forty-nine universal character qualities. Between you and me, they're all biblically based. They include the qualities of attentiveness, truthfulness, obedience, diligence, responsibility, patience, and self-control. Someone has said that there are no laws against teaching such things. It's much like using Webster's Dictionary. A dictionary gives the definition, explaining it in a very straightforward way. Character First! does much the same. It teaches concepts that are consistent with what I learned in Sunday school, but nevertheless, they are concepts.
SBC LIFE Do you write another curriculum for Christian schools or do you just expect them to augment it if they wish to present it along biblical lines?
RG Right now all we offer is the original public school curriculum. Christian schools, Sunday schools, and home schools that use the curriculum currently adapt and supplement with scriptural stories and memorization that the students will facilitate. It's very simple to do.
SBC LIFE If you had one thing to say in summary for our readers, what would it be?
RG At this point people might ask, "This is great. It's happening in schools, but what role would we play in this?" If readers like what they see, they can pass the word along to their local educators.
Also, Christians might have an opportunity to get involved directly in their local public schools or civic centers. Many schools use community volunteers as mentors. If our church members were to get involved teaching these principles as mentors, we could have a greater impact on our communities. Many have written off public schools as hopeless, but this is a way Christians can make an impact, a way for them to be salt and light on a local level.