Aquinas College Head of Middle school Michael Dempsey explains that Character Education is integral to Aquinas College’s aim of producing well-rounded men who seek to be the best they can be for others.
“One of the focuses of our Middle School is to be good men first, everything else comes second. Kindness every day is within the fabric of our culture, and we want boys who can graduate from Aquinas and positively contribute to society no matter what form that takes,” Mr Dempsey explains.
“If they don’t have a strong foundation in character and what it takes to be a good person, then it’s pretty hard for them to do that.”
Character Education starts in the Junior School and there is a strong focus placed on it in the Middle School, the entry point to Aquinas for most of the students and a valuable opportunity, according to teaching staff, to really focus on forming good character.
Middle School (Year 7-9) students have two dedicated lessons a week in character education running alongside their other subjects. It continues in the Senior School to the end of Year 10 and as students move into the upper years, they can continue their character development through involvement in a vast number of leadership opportunities and programs.
Mr Dempsey says character building incorporates many personal development skills including ethical leadership, 21st Century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, advocacy, well-being, growth mindset and non-cognitive behaviours such as study skills. It is closely linked with the school’s Christian faith foundation.
Working closely with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues based at the University of Birmingham, character is delivered according to a ‘caught, taught and sought’ model. The ‘caught’ component models good character through everyday interactions and both staff and students’ interactions are an important part of this.
The ‘taught’ part is the two classes set aside each week where character education is delivered just like any other. The ‘sought’ part presents students with a range of extra curricula opportunities to develop character. This includes international programs such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award - an inclusive Middle School leadership program, as well as arts, sporting and service programs. There is something for every student to foster their character development.
Mr Dempsey explains the focus on Middle School is intentional and timed to coincide with the big life changes students experience going through puberty.
“There is a large amount of adolescent change through the Middle School years,” he says.
“Year 8 and 9, can be a challenging and difficult year for many students.
“In Year 9 in particular we have a specific program called the Odyssey Journey which is part of the wider Veritas program and it’s really built around this idea of a ‘rite of passage’.”
It focuses on correcting toxic expressions of masculinity and that when women are respected, relationships nurtured and communities supported, society benefits in countless ways.
Two weeks of the Odyssey Journey is an adventure like sailing, camping and hiking mixed with outdoor adventures like abseiling all aimed at encouraging students to look at their own character and how they could contribute to the good of the wider community.
A large part of the Year 9 Odyssey curriculum is unpacking the ‘Man Box’ – that set of antiquated, stereotypical attributes that society has traditionally said make a ‘real man’ but may not make a very virtuous human being.
Those traits may include an expectation for boys to be strong, emotionless and to win at all costs, combined with risky, highly sexualised behaviour.
Michael Dempsey explains that part of the school’s Character Education program Veritas, is unpacking the ‘Man Box’ and freeing students from those limiting expectations.
An important component of lifting the lid on the ‘Man Box’ is having the entire Year 9 cohort dance in front of an audience of 700 family, friends, and their teachers.
“We want to really challenge that stereotype of masculinity and the dance challenge is a perfect way to deconstruct ‘Man Box’ thinking. Boys would traditionally consider dancing to be something that is unmanly and not what boys do,” Mr Dempsey explains.
“When we first put this challenge to the boys we were met with groans, disbelief and raised eyebrows. How quickly this changed after the first couple of lessons. First, the students found it hard to coordinate their feet - it certainly challenged the boys physically – though it very quickly became a fun activity that they looked forward to. There was never a problem with boys missing their lunch breaks to practice as we got closer to the performance night.”
“In my 25-year teaching career, it’s become a bit of a highlight because of the positive interactions it helps build between boys -especially those who may not typically be that confident. They all had to learn to work with each other.”
Mr Dempsey says the Veritas program has been running four years. Feedback from teachers is that the positive changes are clear in the improved personal attributes of senior students who’ve had the opportunity to develop their good character over the years.