“Character education is not done through direct statements, such as: be nice, be honest, etc.
Children are very clever; they also observe their teachers from every possible angle.
It is therefore extremely difficult to fool them.
Be the subject studied what it may, what the teacher transmits about character formation is what the teacher actually is.
The teacher is the actual model, and therefore, you have to be what you teach.
When a teacher is a fake, the students will know it right away. It is so very important for a teacher to be able to say “I do not know.”
The importance of this cannot be over-stressed. Pretending knowledge undermines not the knowledge, but the character of the pupils.
Sometimes, it is so much better to say, “Dear pupils, I myself am far from perfect in this point; and while I am teaching you, I myself am also trying to make some progress.”
Beyond being fair and honest, it will also be respected by the children, because then they will feel that they and the teacher are going somewhere together. For how many among us can really say to our pupils, “Look at me, and behave exactly like this”?
The point is that certain things can be taught, or transmitted, by being a role model.
A teacher, by definition, is a model, and when a teacher has humility, and integrity, it is transmitted. And it is transmitted not only by personal example, but also through the teacher’s demands.
Many teachers create dishonesty, intellectual or otherwise, by their demands, as well as by the way of what they give the better marks for – for instance, by giving a good mark to a dishonest paper, just because it is “nice.”
But there is more to it than that.
It says in Pirke Avot that Torah learning “endows him (= the learner) with sovereignty and authority,” or, in other words, what it means to master something, and what it means not to master something.
Mastery means that one becomes the real owner, the real boss, of whatever it is that he studied. And lack of mastery is the sloppiness that comes from not understanding what it means to do something, anything, properly.
This, in fact, may be the most important thing: learning the proper way of doing things.
If a teacher manages to cover all of the material in the curriculum, or more or less than that, it is not all that significant.
But if a teacher succeeds in teaching children how to do things properly, that is an achievement.
With time, such children will be able to close any gap.
To create a fine human being, even if that human being has less formal education than the average student in the other school – that is really worthwhile.”
From a talk by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz called “On Character Education”