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April 26, 2022

Integrating Character Education into Curriculum

Spotlighting learnings from the WGU program's first cohort

In today's K-12 landscape, leaders, teachers, students, and parents are working to discover ways to create a world where students thrive academically and become engaged citizens. WGU Teachers College recently launched a comprehensive character education program for K-12 principals and teachers in a nationally available, competency-based format that includes virtual events and live quarterly convenings. Participants learn from experts, engage with colleagues from across the U.S., and walk away with actionable best practices and advice that help them use their existing teams and resources to transform their schools into schools of character. Principals in the program learn to develop a comprehensive school-level strategy for building a school of character.

Think Character Education Takes Extra Time? Think Again.

Principals in the program have been engaging with thought leaders in webinars that share expert speakers' proven strategies for creating schools of character and communities that support them – strategies which are immediately applicable to any school leader. Experts demonstrate viable ways to ensure that character education is baked into the academics and overall school programming, requiring no extra time, just a thoughtful approach to curriculum and community building.

What follows are a sampling of the learnings benefitting principals in this engaging professional development program that keeps school leaders from having to build their character education programs from the ground up with hard learnings along a bumpy path. By learning from those who have been successful, principals are better situated to use their existing resources to unite their community of teachers, students and parents/caregivers in constructive conversations and successfully create schools where students feel safe and thrive academically and personally. 

“Character education doesn’t take extra time. It’s not a set of lessons that fixes our kids. Rather, character is what our children and their trusting parents want from us, and what we want from them. It fixes our classrooms.” – Thomas Courtney


One of the program’s many expert speakers and webinar host, Thomas Courtney, is a noted international guest teacher, a frequent author in education publications including this article in Edutopia, a four-time award-winning teacher of the year, and a 23-year classroom veteran teacher. In his webinar for program participants, “Developing Character through Curriculum,” Mr. Courtney delivered on his promise to leave participants with an actionable framework for how they can incorporate character education into any school, any class, any setting, and any content area.

His school, Chollas-Mead in San Diego, takes a holistic approach to character education. The Title I school is 63 percent English Language Learners, 93 percent free or reduced lunch, 23 percent special education students,  and is in a low socio-economic neighborhood.

Mr Courtney presenting during webinar

It also is the highest performing school in its cluster, has consistently high “like school” scores by students, has deep parental engagement and trust, and high-test scores which exceed the district average. Courtney believes this success can be attributed to the culture of trust that the holistic approach to character education builds in the school’s students, teachers, and parents.

An End to Adversarial Relationships with Parents

students and parents discussing values

Courtney guided program participants on what he and his school have done to integrate parents into the school culture and activities, building parent agency and collaborative input gathering. 


He intentionally demonstrated ways to create productive situations where students and parents interact together as the work to build a trust-based school flourishes.

Participants also heard from students who benefitted from the model in inspirational testimonials and stories that could be replicated in program participants’ schools. Courtney shared videos from some of his classroom sessions, including international teaching assignments, where the student excitement, engagement, and mutual respect are evident. He offered program participants step-by-step advice on how to – and as importantly, how not to – build trust-based classrooms where students embrace and demonstrate self-control, integrity, friendship, respect, kindness, and courage – all attributes that benefit them personally and professionally for life. Courtney also points out that in the process, academics also benefit.

Throughout his session Courtney also shared books and other resources that help build community, compassion and understanding among educators.

Learning from Peer Principals

Another expert webinar speaker in the program is Dr. Arria Coburn, the principal at The Springfield Renaissance School (grade 6-12) which received the Secondary Magnet School Merit Award of Excellence from the Magnet Schools of America in 2017 – one of only six recipients in the U.S. that year.

dr arria coburn

Dr. Coburn (left) is in her seventh year as a principal and has been in education for the 15 years prior where she worked as a special education teacher before transitioning to a role as assistant principal. She was named the 2018 Magnet School Region One Principal of the Year in 2018 and has spent two years researching and collaborating about practices that increased student achievement in marginalized groups at the Center for Distinguished Fellows. She is also an Influence 100 Fellow with the Massachusetts Department of Education. Renaissance has 700 students, 81 percent of whom are students are color and more than half of whom come from low-income households. For the last 10 years in a row, 100 percent of the students in each graduating class have earned acceptance into at least one college.

Admitting When Something Isn’t Working

A huge advantage to program participants is not only learning about what works, but also learning from peer experts about what didn’t work, saving principals in the program time, resources, and problems. Coburn candidly admits in her session that what the school was doing previously wasn’t working, saying their initial approach missed the mark in giving students enough agency and voice in the character development process. She shared how the school pivoted in recent years and saw massive gains in students willingly and successfully engaging in character development.

“In speaking to our students, we heard that they felt education was being done to them, rather than with them.” – Dr. Arria Coburn


Coburn and team decided to adopt a new model based on three dimensions of student achievement to better serve the school mission stated as: To provide a rigorous academic program for college-bound students in a small, personalized setting that impels and supports students to use their minds well, to care for themselves and others, and to rise to the challenges and duties of citizenship. The three dimensions Coburn unpacked included (1) High Quality Student Work, (2) Character, and (3) Mastery of Knowledge and Skills.

One student with whom Coburn shared the mic within the webinar spoke to how she has benefitted greatly from the change in direction, and confidently shared that upon graduating she received a full ride scholarship to Dartmouth.

Creating Belonging with Crews

Like other peer leaders and experts in the WGU Teachers College character education program, Coburn shared practical, applicable advice. One example is that of ‘crews’ where, much like sculling crews, each student is part of a small group of 12 student peers and at least one adult with whom they meet and interact with regularly, giving all students a better sense of belonging and community.

When sharing some of her other successes that principals can replicate in their schools including the ever-important tips for how to build staff buy in, Coburn added, “It exposes what is possible when you have a community that is committed to ensuring equitable access to education.”

More Experts Offer Advice Throughout the Program

A third educator leader, Susie Richards – a WGU alumna and former employee offered a helpful session sharing important implementation strategies, and in her words, “how to really do this work in character education and really bring it to life.” Additional interactions with experts are offered to principals throughout the year.

Successfully Creating Schools of Character

A principal participating in the 2022 active cohort had this to say: “…Great program that will be needed more and more as our nation faces the stresses of the emotional well-being of our communities and students.” Another recently added after the spring convening session, “I enjoyed the collaboration with administrators from across the country and feel comforted knowing that we are all facing the same obstacles.”

The WGU Teachers College program’s director has enjoyed watching the evolution of ideas and practices as they take hold. “It’s been fascinating to watch this journey and to see the transformative process as principals learn these strategies and skills. In this program they come to realize character education is not yet one more initiative to implement, but instead a holistic approach to learning that creates tremendous joy in the classroom and academic success throughout the school,” said Dr. Christina Dehler, Director of Academic Programs and Project Director of the Character Education Professional Learning at WGU.

To learn more about this program including how to register for an upcoming cohort please visit this page.

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