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The Importance of Character

Tim Blauvelt’s classroom is a laboratory for imaginative science experiments, crammed with test tubes, Coca Cola bottles and scraps of wood. A huge garage door opens onto the deck of the Jonathan Milikowsky Science and Technology Building, where Tim and his students famously blast homemade rockets over the recess field.

But it’s a big sign on the wall that first catches one’s eye upon entering Tim’s classroom – and it has nothing to do with science. Printed in big black letters is a quotation from the writer Henry James that reads, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

The message is a prominent reminder of one of Foote’s most important goals: to help shape children into moral and caring individuals. From Kindergarten through Grade 9, the teaching of good character is stitched like a ribbon into every fiber of the Foote experience. In classrooms, in advisee groups, on the sports fields, in activity clubs and in the community, Foote students take part in shared learning experiences that support their social and emotional development.

While many schools have adopted off-the-shelf character education programs, Foote’s has grown up organically. In the Lower School, it is seamlessly integrated into daily learning. Walk into any Kindergarten or Mixed Age Group classroom and you’ll find teachers helping students negotiate disputes with peers and navigate their own emotions. You’ll see teachers squatting, eye-to-eye with children, listening intently and treating each of their questions with seriousness and respect – in effect, modeling good character.

In her classroom, MAG teacher Cara Hames has created a colorful “feelings thermometer” that hangs on the wall by the door. Each student has as clothespin with his or her name, which they can move up and down the thermometer to match their emotions – from “discouraged,” “bored” or “silly” to “joyful,” “excited” and “happy.” Nearby is a small table that Cara calls the “peace place” where children can go to write or draw when they feel overwhelmed. The common theme: making children feel safe and understood.

“If you’re in a place where you’re feeling safe and comfortable, you’re more apt to take risks – raising your hand when a question is asked,” Cara says. “That’s when we do our best learning – when we stretch ourselves.”

At the start of each school year, third graders arrive to find a “welcome bag” full of goodies, each symbolizing an important character value: a stick of gum (always stick together), a roll of multi-colored Smarties (everyone is smart in a different way), an eraser (it’s OK to make mistakes) and a ball (when things don’t go your way, bounce back.) Later in the fall, third graders make a list of “ugly words” such as “stupid” or “I quit” and write them on a big chart on the wall. When they’re done, they rip up the paper into tiny pieces and bury them in the dirt outside their classroom – pledging not to use those words during the school year.

Two years ago, a group of Foote School faculty, staff and administrators created the Falco’s PRIDE initiative to serve as a common language for talking about the school’s core values. Named for the school’s falcon mascot, PRIDE stands for Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Dependability and Excellence. Colorful posters featuring those words and a cartoon falcon adorn every room on campus, and Falco’s PRIDE serves as a touch point for countless conversations about goals and expectations. Even the youngest students grasp the words’ meaning, says Head of Lower School Beth Mello. “If you go and ask a second grader what perseverance means, they’ll say ‘to try really hard,’” Beth says.

“Perseverance is an extremely helpful concept,” adds fifth grade teacher Jim Adams. I tell my class, ‘We’re doing this because it’s difficult. Show me what you can do. If you need help, I’ll give you help. But I want you to persevere.’”

Foote students and teachers are supported by a full-time school counselor, Veena Raguhvir, who visits classrooms and meets with students one-on-one. Veena keeps a trove of books in her inviting office, off the fifth grade hallway, which she uses to get children thinking about how they treat one another, and how they want to be treated. She also uses group activities like the “friendship pizza” – in which third graders make a brown-paper pizza with qualities of a good friend as the toppings – to reinforce concepts like loyalty and sticking up for someone. “It’s all about learning about yourself and how you make an impact on your community,” Veena says.

Sports play a big role in developing character, too. In the gym and on the sports field, Athletic Director Brad McGuire coaches young athletes to be respectful and accountable. “Sportsmanship is a tough thing for some kids to get – they get so fired up in the moment,” Brad says. “We try to connect sports with the real world: If you have a conflict, you don’t just blow up. “ To that end, Brad stresses personal growth over winning. “Obviously, everyone loves to win but we want the kids to build a solid foundation in the sport and hopefully develop an interest in it.”

Students in the Middle School encounter examples of good and bad character throughout the curriculum, especially in their studies of literature and history. To Kill a Mockingbird, a staple of seventh grade, introduces students to Atticus Finch, a character of great integrity, while Lord of the Flies presents characters driven to cruelty by their circumstances. History students learn what made Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. great and virtuous leaders. Seventh graders also complete a heroes project that combines a research paper about someone who exhibits heroism with a portrait they create in Karla Matheny’s art class.


“It’s fascinating to hear the kids talk about their heroes and the qualities they especially admire and aspire to,” says Karla.

After-school activity clubs like Amnesty International, Environmental Action Group and Model Congress allow students to make a small difference in solving global problems by working together. A newer club, F-STAND (Foote Students Against Negativity and Discrimination), works to spread the message of the importance of being kind and inclusive, and treating others with respect, by holding events and presentations throughout the year.

“We want to empower young people to develop their muscles to say, ‘I care about something. I have the talents to do something. How can I make a difference?’” says Assistant Head of Middle School Liam Considine.

Likewise, Foote’s community service program takes learning outside the classroom to help members of the Greater New Haven community who are in need. This year, the sixth grade spearheaded a Thanksgiving food drive that collected more than 1,000 canned goods for St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen in Hamden. For Valentine’s Day, MAG students donated 207 restaurant gift cards to Columbus House in New Haven, so homeless guests can get warm, and get a bite, when the shelter is closed. Volunteering has impacted generations of Foote students, many of whom have gone on to careers in service of less fortunate members of their communities and the world.

“We are creating human beings as much as kids who know stuff,” says Head of Middle School John Turner. “There’s no written exam for character, but people face these exams on a daily basis – when you find $10 on the playground, or a waiter undercharges you for a meal. At the end of the day, who you are is more important than what you achieve.”

Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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