EMBEDDING CHARACTER STRENGTHS IN SCHOOLS

Sarah Shepherd

“Whenever we act, even in a small way, we are changing the course of history, nudging the world down one path rather than another” (Gopnik, 2009)

Every day we act using our character strengths: saying hello to students walking by (kindness), picking up rubbish in the yard (leadership), thanking a colleague for their help (gratitude); the list goes on. Character strengths form a central part of Geelong Grammar School’s Positive Education model because using these capacities helps us to flourish, overcome challenges and nurture our relationships. Character strength exercises are increasingly being used, both in schools and businesses, to help employees become more engaged, productive and happy, as well as to improve the skills of leaders, teams and entire organisations. Character strength use at work has been connected to job satisfaction, engagement, meaning, productivity and organisational citizenship behaviour (see VIA Institute of Character’s website for research articles). By embedding character strengths in our schools, we can nurture organisations that prioritise a sense of collective responsibility and ‘nudge’ our school communities down preferred paths.

One way of thinking about this approach is through ‘organisational compassion’. This concept goes beyond the Latin origins of the word compassion, meaning “to suffer with”; when virtues are applied across schools, they can stimulate and cultivate shared understandings and a strong link between the individual and the collective (Gregory, 2015, p. 347). Policies, strategies and leaders can create cultures and environments in which “individuals are moved, and able, to exercise” virtues (Gregory, 2015, p. 339).

Prompted by Gopnik’s and Gregory’s thoughts, we can reflect on our own strengths and actions, those we encourage in others and the environment we cultivate in our schools. Do we create circumstances to facilitate optimal flourishing? Can all members of the community assist in this process? In this article, we will look at four potential avenues for this system-wide, strengths-based approach: school mission, employment, affirmation of strengths and performance management. When strategies like these are prioritised, it is possible for all individuals within the school to contribute to workplace wellbeing and building an environment favourable to the use of strengths.

School mission

A great mission statement can capture an organisation’s unique and enduring purpose. For instance, the Geelong Grammar School’s Purpose Document highlights the underlying philosophy embraced by the community to define ‘Exceptional Education’; as described in Figure A, it is manifest in the school’s purpose, spirit, focus, character and beliefs. Missions espouse different values that reflect different strengths. Missions that emphasise engagement, for example, will be strongly associated with zest, curiosity, perseverance and perspective. And missions that highlight meaning will reflect spirituality, gratitude and hope (Niemiec, 2013). Thus, articulating an operational mission and following up and reflecting on its implementation is an integral part of a strengths-based management approach. Adding measurable subsections to the school’s mission that explicitly outline how the organisation will accomplish the goal will also be powerful, especially because this can help employees action elements of the mission in their work (DuFour, 1997).

Geelong Grammar School Purpose Document 2016

Figure A: Geelong Grammar School Purpose Document

Employment

School leaders may also delegate specific tasks or roles to employees who exhibit relevant signature strengths, which are the strengths that individuals readily and authentically use and are consequently energised by the use of them. For example, Thrive Global - Arianna Huffington’s new company that aims to end the ‘stress epidemic’ in organisations by offering long-lasting evidence-based solutions to enhance wellbeing - recently sought to hire account managers who exhibit “curiosity, enthusiasm, positivity and empathy”. Communicating these priorities is a way to align workers with the values and goals of the organisation and of that specific role. In a school setting, communicating these priorities also reiterates the commitment of the school to constructing a favourable environment for character strengths. Additionally, this could be gauged when interviewing new staff members by asking questions such as:

  • What do you see as the key character strengths for a successful team?
  • How will your greatest strength (top signature strength) help your performance in this role?
  • Discuss a time when you learnt from the strengths of a colleague, particularly a colleague whose strengths differ from yours.
  • How have you harnessed your strengths to solve a problem?

Affirmation of strengths

To nurture a compassionate, empathetic and emboldened organisational culture in which all feel a sense of belonging, it is suggested that opportunities are fostered for school employees (as well as students; see our article on Character Strengths in Action) to go through the three-step process of Character Strengths Affirmation: 

  1. Become meaningfully aware of their strengths,
  2. Deeply explore the potential of their strengths and 
  3. Actionably plan to utilise their strengths (Niemiec, 2013^, p. 9).

Through this process, it is likely that individuals will identify (perhaps through the VIA Character Strengths survey) and use their signature strengths, which can be especially invigorating. According to VIA, endorsing strengths in this way has been found to be related to an increased sense of meaning, but both endorsing and deploying strengths is connected to increased wellbeing. The following questions can be used to achieve both of these actions of endorsement and deployment:

  • Think of a colleague whom you admire for their use of a particular strength.
  • Think of a person whom you have had difficulties with and suggest one of their signature strengths.
  • Plan an activity to conduct tonight to action a strength you can identify in those around you.

Performance management

It can also be valuable to include consideration of character strengths in performance management. Strength spotting, where individuals communicate to one another the actions and strengths each has exhibited, is one helpful peer-to-peer professional development practice (Linley, 2008). Furthermore, personal reflection on strengths can be meaningful. For instance, Cooper and Woods (2016) found that for head teachers, an online strengths-based development tool increased motivation and cognisance of realised strengths, learned behaviours and areas for improvement, which subsequently improved their delegation skills and personal resilience. This will have ensuing organisational benefits; encouraging performance management like this will contribute to productive relationships between employees. Kay Long, Head of Learning at Geelong Grammar School, concurs and reflects that: “The Performance and Development Programme (PDP) for GGS teaching staff provides a process and framework for improving professional practice. It incorporates goal setting, personal reflection and colleague collaboration. An understanding of one’s own character strengths allows for increased self-awareness and an understanding of potential areas for improvement.”

To summarise, there are many ways in which character strengths can be harnessed in organisations, particularly in schools, including:

  • Careful consideration and actioning of character strengths inherent to the school mission.
  • Inclusion of relevant strengths that reflect the mission in guidelines for potential staff.
  • Provision of space for strength discovery and affirmation.
  • Promotion of personal and peer-to-peer reflections on strengths for greater professional development.

If employees believe their success at work is related to their strengths, they are more likely to experience harmonious energy use and therefore renew their energy as opposed to burning out. Ultimately, schools who nurture the strengths of their community members will experience sustained positive outcomes and those within it will enjoy a higher quality of life.

References

Cooper, L., & Woods, K. (2016). Evaluating the use of a strengths-based development tool with head teachers. Educational Psychology in Practice, 1-19

DuFour, R. (1997). Make the Worlds of Mission Statements Come to Life. Journal of Staff Development, 18(3), 54-55.

Gopnik, A. (2009). The philosophical baby: what children's minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gregory, J. (2015). Engineering Compassion: The Institutional Structure of Virtue. Journal of Social Policy, 44(02), 339-356.

Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013). Mindfulness and character strengths: a practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013^). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York: Springer.

VIA. (n.d.) VIA Character Strengths in the Workplace. Retrieved January 05, 2017, from https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Research/VIA-Character-Strengths-in-the-Workplace.

Sarah Shepherd
Sarah Shepherd


Sarah Shepherd is an education consultant for the Institute of Positive Education. She was previously the Senior School Positive Education Coordinator and a History teacher at Geelong Grammar School. She is currently completing a Master of Education: Private School Leadership course through the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University in New York City, USA.